Update late 2019:
(as another quintessentially modern, 21st century technology)
Original (Edited) Review:
The Wind Rises carries a lot of baggage. It is director Hayao Myazaki’s retirement film, if he is to be trusted, and thus will inevitably be compared to every film he’s ever made and hampered with the impression of future films left unmade. My usual rule of thumb would indicate to divorce the film from Miyazaki’s history and view it on its own terms. While there’s ample reason to take this path, such a take would also do this film a disservice. Not only is this a strong film in its own right, but it’s a telling and touching commentary on Miyazaki’s career as a whole, and thus it invites the comparison.
Although a biography of Jiro Horikoshi, a Japanese inventor famed for his prototype Mitsubishi A5M, it’s easy to see the film as a confessional of sorts for Miyazaki as he comes to terms with his own career in filmmaking and the dangers of the medium for the world. While the director’s films usually approximate dreams and desire, this is a surprisingly straight-forward piece, and the surprising pre-release comparisons to the classic epics of David Lean reveal themselves not only worthy but perfectly fit to this grand but personal film about art and consequences that uses the director’s flair for visual storytelling as much as conventional dialogue to tell its story. It isn’t perfect, and it is difficult not to wish for something a touch more ebullient and deconstructive for his final film. But conventional quality is quality nonetheless, especially in a film which so quietly, so sedately, and so rigorously meditates on and appreciates the necessity of sturdy, incremental improvement and diligence within a chosen field, all while eyeing – in its periphery, admittedly – the tragedy such a (potentially) blinkered focus may emit into the world.
Miyazaki’s foremost means of storytelling has always been the visual. His films eschew conventional narrative in favor of a sort of visual poetry to get lost in, something that aims less for reality and more for the dreamscape of want and need. Here, Miyazaki’s film sacrifices some of the wide-eyed imagination of his earlier films due to its grounded, character-based nature. This being said, it makes up for it in the nuances of characters who more tellingly approximate reality but who are still rendered as enigmas. A European mystery in human form Jiro meets mid-way through the film seems an obvious snitch, although the only revealing element to his character’s true nature is his buggy, even ghostlike eyes. Is this reality though, or Jiro’s own image of a man who comes off to him as a suspicious outsider?
The narrative of the film is still anything but plot-heavy. Miyazaki loves to give his characters time to sit and breathe, to think about the world around them, while his camera is off thinking about that world as well, revealing its thoughts in stunning, impressionistic details. The narrative essentially follows Jiro as he grows up, falls in love with planes as a child and becomes well-known for his skill as an engineer. The film details his multi-year struggles to perfect an exceedingly difficult design, making sideways glances at Jiro’s personal turmoils in marriage and the lingering ethical dilemma of constructing a plane he knows will be used as a Japanese war machine.
Elsewhere, the film is at its most breathtaking early on when it essays the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 in unnerving, disconcerting fashion, played like a quiet nightmare, both hauntingly ephemeral and devastatingly permanent, passing by before the viewer can come to terms with what is happening. Particular note should be given to the sound design, which gives us restrained solitude when we expect bombast and captures the distanced dehumanization of the tragedy, so unnerving as to not truly render aurally for people lost in the rush of simply trying to get away alive. We are rendered unable and helpless to address the very sound of the event.
Of course, we do get dream sequences. It’s almost impossible to imagine a Miyazaki film without them. Many of his films emphasize the overtly surrealistic impressionism of a dreamlike state filtered throughout the film as a whole, frequently leading to an ambiguity of sorts as to the given film’s “reality”. However, in contrast to, say, Spirited Away, the dreams in The Wind Rises are carefully delineated from the film’s “reality”, and they expose Jiro’s thrill over invention intermixed with the tension he comes to feel in a world that sees his invention come to fruition for death and destruction. Miyazaki’s portrayal of Jiro is empathetic, as a genius beset by personal problems, a person who exists in an imperfect world and whose struggle for perfection may compromise his morality. But he isn’t blind to the central ethical tension Jiro faces: not only is his invention used for death, but it can only exist in a world where it is used for death. Without funding from the Japanese army during World War II, it’s likely he never would have seen his dreams come to life. This knowledge drapes any potentially quixotic dream sequence in a thick melancholy, and haunts Jiro to his end.
Furthermore, while it’s hard to compare plane and film, it’s equally difficult to not see Miyazaki implicitly tackling the misguided ethical and moral grounds films often stake in a world where they speak to, and can manipulate, human desire and action. Thus, the film works most directly as a personal commentary, and maybe an apology, by a man who has seen the good and the bad in a medium of creation he loves. It is this edge which gives the film intimacy in the face of its grand ambitions, elevating it from a good epic to a great examination of personal tension and the role of the individual in society.
That, and Miyazaki’s trenchantly wide visual framing that mimics midcentury epics like Lawrence of Arabia. Like that often misunderstood Lean masterpiece, Miyazaki dwarfs Jiro with the limits of the world and often depicts the character like a pebble in a much wider stream Jiro either avoids or refuses to address. As the film sees Jiro, he’s often too busy with his planes to truly inhabit the world, the other central tragedy of his nature, and perhaps the one which leads him to create engines of destruction that contrast visually with his own elegiac dream vision of art and creation. Like Lawrence, Rises boasts a subtle and impressionistic layer of self-critique where the grandness of the imagery becomes both the dreamworld of its main character and their nightmare, tacitly exposing how quixotic that character is and revealing how blinded they are by their own desire for success. Like TE Lawrence, Jiro’s dreams do not necessarily help anyone, including himself, and this knowledge looms large over Miyazaki right to the end.