Reviewing Ghibli: The Wind Rises

There is an amusing line early on in The Wind Rises that might hint as to why Hayao Miyazaki retired (yes, we’ve heard it before, but let’s go with it for now).

The film often uses a narrative device in which film’s protagonist, aeronautic engineer Jiro Horikoshi dreams about meeting with his hero, Italian engineer and plane designer Giovanni Caproni. Dream-Caproni advises the young Jiro that “artists are only creative for ten years. Make the most of your ten years.”

Another line, again involving an engineer Jiro idolizes, goes the other way. Jiro and his friend and fellow engineer Honjo are lamenting how they may never catch up to the genius of German engineers Hugo Junkers, whose designs they envy artistically, whom the Japanese military envies for other reasons. Even if they make great advances themselves in five years, Jiro says, that’s five more years for Junkers to continue to innovate.

You could apply both these lines of thought to Miyazaki’s career in many ways, and it’s not hard to imagine that Miyazaki is engaging in at least a little bit of self-reflection. Perhaps Miyazaki feels that he is long overdue to call it quits, his career as a director having spanned 35 years now. His most praised film, Spirited Away, was released 12 years ago. His filmography stands against any contemporary director’s. If artists have a ten year peak, it’s easy to imagine Miyazaki sees himself as having had his, and that it’s finally time to wind down.

Or perhaps he sees himself as Junkers, driven to continue setting the bar for other artists to follow. Perhaps that’s why he has continually come out of retirement. There’s always one more idea, one last work of art.

That’s all conjecture over a couple throwaway lines, of course. But they stuck with me after seeing The Wind Rises for a reason. It is Miyazaki’s most personal film, a film by a man in love with flight and creating beauty about a man obsessed with both those things. It also is emblematic of Miyazaki’s most triumphant qualities as a filmmaker and, on occasion, his biggest pratfalls. I don’t know if The Wind Rises is a grand success for Miyazaki or a more mid-level one; it’s simply too fresh on my mind. Such are its weaknesses that I left thinking that this could easily have been the perfect film that it is not. But such are its strengths that it is his first film since Spirited Away to linger so vividly on my mind afterwards.

This is Miyazaki’s first film with no fantasy elements. And if it is his last film ever, that’s a shame; his signature touches make for a wondrous translation of the real world into his animated realms. I often see western critics puzzled by the increased likelihood of anime to take place in a world that does not require animation. Why not just film it?

But live-action-as-default is no less arbitrary than choosing to animate something. All films attempt to create a world we want to spend our time in. Live-action is no less fiction than animation. And I cannot imagine any current live-action director using the screen as a canvas like Miyazaki does here.

At times, I couldn’t take my eyes off the corners of the screen, which were continually brimming with detail, nature, people going about their lives, colors, life. Miyazaki has never been one for a static canvas, but he outdoes himself with this film, which balances the calm demeanor of its protagonist with a screen that never stops moving.

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Miyazaki constructs some virtuosic scenes here. The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 is portrayed vividly, with the quake literally rippling across the ground like a shockwave. The scene plays out at length, allowing Jiro to meet the character who is both part of the film’s centerpiece, and ultimately its biggest problem. A young girl named Naoko is traveling on the same train as Jiro when the quake strikes, and Naoko’s maid is injured. Jiro helps them reach safety in a sequence both patient and urgent, observant of the devastation of the quake as it focuses on Jiro’s single-minded aim to rescue these particular people.

Of course, Jiro eventually meets Naoko again. They fall in love almost instantly. Naoko is also sick with tuberculosis, and spends much of the film bedridden. Without divulging too much, I saw Naoko as a missed opportunity for Miyazaki. Once she returns to the film, she is given little to do but be supportive of Jiro. Actions take place off screen that I regretted weren’t given their own scenes. At one point, Jiro’s younger sister Kayo (a classic Miyazaki scene-stealing supporting character) visits them. She tells Jiro that she has become close with Naoko. Their friendship is essential to one of the film’s most significant scenes. Couldn’t we once have seen Naoko and Kayo on screen together? Such a scene wouldn’t have disrupted this patient and observant film, and done far more for giving their friendship weight than Miyazaki telling us about it. It’s an odd misstep for Miyazaki to underwrite a character as significant to the story as Naoko.

Jiro has more than his share of scenes that do little more than show him forging relationships and friendships. These scenes are uniformly pleasurable. An array of characters fill the screen, none of them throwaways. But Naoko is not just a supporting player; she is a character of huge significance to the story. The film suffers for her being shortchanged.

Issues with Naoko’s writing aside, the film nails the element at its heart: the wonder of flight. Miyazaki has never hid his love for flight, and here he has finally composed his love poem to it. He views Jiro as a humble artist, aching to create the work of art that he envisions so clearly in his head, and dismayed that his creations are going to be used in warfare.

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The Wind Rises hums along, avoiding a typical plot arc. There isn’t a single villainous character. Naoko’s battle with tuberculosis provides more drama than the central plot. Jiro simply wants to make things fly, and fly beautifully. And every time they do, it is a triumph, for him and for us. And unfortunately, what makes his planes beautiful is also what makes them appeal so much to military forces. He speaks of making a perfectly smooth, light plane, minimizing air resistance. He casually says that guns would weigh the plane down too much, so they can be discarded. He doesn’t seem to, or chooses not to, grasp that for armies and air forces, the guns are the  point; the planes are merely their flying mounts.

If Miyazaki has ever had a fairly consistent weakness, it’s been plotting his arcs and ending his stories on the right note. Miyazaki has no equal at constructing worlds and setting them into motion. But sometimes, he has some trouble knowing when and how hard to hit the brakes. The Wind Rises’ loses its footing in its last scene. It addresses the plot elements that need to be addressed and then ends. It doesn’t quite have the gravity that its overlying tone of deep regret demands. And its final message, exemplified by the Paul Valery quote that gives the film its name (“The wind is rising! We must try to live!”) doesn’t have as much impact without that gravity to rise against.

This is uneven, imperfect Miyazaki. But it is also gorgeous, bittersweet, haunting Miyazaki. It’s one of his most flawed films. But films are not tests. We don’t add up a tally of right and wrong answers and arrive at a final score. It’s his most unforgettable film in years. And I mean that in a literal sense. When I saw Princess Mononoke for the first time, I couldn’t sleep that night, its images so stirred my imagination. The Wind Rises has not left my mind. It could have, should have, been better in many ways. Most of the time, it’s a reminder that Hayao Miyazaki’s films contain uncommon grace and beauty. I didn’t want to leave this world he had created, even if, for once, it was my own.

(all media from the official The Wind Rises tumblr)

Past Reviewing Ghibli entries:

Spirited Away

Princess Mononoke

Castle in the Sky

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

Whisper of the Heart

My Neighbor Totoro

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About johnmichaelmaximilian

Freelance writer from New Bedford, Massachusetts. Movies are my favorite thing.

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