The Wind Rises

Hayao Miyazaki is the greatest animation director in history. Arguable? Of course. Walt Disney was far more famous; without him, anime as we know it wouldn't exist, since Japan's earliest animators intentionally copied the Walt Disney style. Yet Disney never directed a single full-length animated feature; he only produced the movies that bear his name. There have been directors in the animation world who were more experimental than Miyazaki (Ralph Bakshi), more philosophical (Mamoru Oshii), and more financially successful worldwide (John Lassiter and the Pixar directorial team). It does not diminish anything to acknowledge their accomplishments.

But Miyazaki's body of work as a director is easily the most stunning. He has made eleven full-length feature films, and there's not a bad one in the bunch. The variety in his pictures means that not everyone will agree on his best works, but all Miyazaki's movies feature compelling characters, sumptuous animation, and a sheer sense of childlike wonder. If you are a fan of animation, you don't have to love Hayao Miyazaki or even like every movie he's made...but if you don't respect his talent and his impact on the animation world, you haven't paid enough attention.

Miyazaki announced that The Wind Rises is his swan song; while he's discussed retirement in the past, it appears that this is the last film we will see him direct. Yes, that's a disappointment. But if there must be a final Miyazaki film, The Wind Rises is an excellent work on which to depart the scene.

It's not his most exciting or even his most entertaining picture. It is his most mature, filled with concepts we've never seen him tackle before. Moments of near whimsy are lined with melancholy, and the subtlety of the story means there are no pat answers to the difficult themes the film presents. Children who have loved many of his other movies won't find The Wind Rises a good fit until they reach late high school, I'd imagine, even though there's little here that's offensive and nothing to warrant the PG-13 rating it has received. But if you're an adult who can appreciate an animated film that will challenge you more than the rarest of live-action movies, you're in for a treat.

Long before he knows the words, Jiro wants to become an aeronautical engineer. From a young age, Jiro dreams of creating airplanes. Yet his dreams are also haunted by darker visions, with iron crosses and promises of violence off in the distance. All Jiro wants to do is dream and design, but somehow he knows that the beauty of flight will be co-opted by those who would use it for destruction. Yet he cannot help but stargaze and contemplate life in the clouds...

As he grows up, inspired by the designs of Italian engineer Giovanni Caproni, Jiro begins to make a reality out of his fantasies through his studies at Tokyo University. Surviving the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 (depicted in some detail), Jiro eventually is recruited by a firm building airplanes for the increasingly militaristic government. He becomes good friends with Honjo, a fellow engineer who appreciates Jiro's amazing talents.

The twosome are eventually sent to Germany to see how far the Reich's aviation program has come; they are dismayed both by the German reluctance to share any information with them and their own country's amazing lag in the field. Determined to bridge the gap between German and Japanese technology, they set out on different paths to build a plane to rival anything any other country can manufacture. In the meantime, Jiro is reunited with a young woman he rescued during the earthquake years before, and a bittersweet romance ensues for the man torn between the love of his work, his dreams, and the woman that captured his heart.

Miyazaki makes many bold, risky choices in The Wind Rises, and the viewer will have to determine how well he succeeds. While anime is known for detailed visuals and some of Miyazaki's films have that factor, much of The Wind Rises is animated simply. Since the story is a fictionalization of the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the creator of the Zero fighter plane, I was expecting the look to be different. It's very beautiful to witness, though, and the simplicity helps the audience recognize the thin line between Jiro's dream world and the reality he attempts to create.

Another surprising move was the decision to make most, if not all, of the mechanical noises through the use of human sound -- essentially, somebody doing vocal sound effects into a microphone. At first, it's strange, even a little off-putting. We're so used to having true-to-life sounds in our motion pictures that vocalized noisemaking seems vaguely amateurish. Yet for me, the reason for this became clear during the Kanto earthquake sequence, again done with obviously vocalized effects. It hit me that the earth's movement and the technology on display share the same tonality -- we're hearing the voice of the kami, the sound of the gods. When we reach into the skies (or into technology in general), we are moving into a realm of spirits we do not know or understand, a far more dangerous and foolish decision than we might realize. Of course, this is only an interpretation; all you may hear on the soundtrack is somebody making whooshing noises. But for an aging director to continue taking chances in his filmmaking is refreshing.

Moving on to the matter of the is serviceable, though far from the best dub we've seen on a Studio Ghibli film. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whom I often enjoy, is strangely flat in the lead role as Jiro. While he may be attempting to emulate the Japanese voice actor -- none other than Hideaki Anno, the creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion -- his performance is less than captivating. On the other hand, John Krasinski of The Office does a memorable job as Honjo; documentarian and occasional actor Werner Herzog also impresses in a small role as Castorp, a sympathetic German Jiro meets on his travels.

For cinema enthusiasts, The Wind Rises is a whirlwind of open-ended questions that will spawn debate over coffee for a couple hours following a viewing. Is it pacifistic or militaristic? Nationalistic or critical of WWII Japan? Japanese audiences were undecided, and Americans uncertain what to make of a film about a war hero on the wrong side of the war will be divided as well. Is Jiro driven by heart or ego or both? Is a dream worth pursuing if that dream inevitably will lead to destruction, even though great good might also result? These and many other queries are left unanswered.

Miyazaki, who has been known for his environmental stands and his opposition to Japan's re-militarization, is nevertheless unwilling to club us over the head with his viewpoint. There are many subtle threads that the careful and patient viewer will weave together. This makes for a nuanced film where each viewer may come out with significantly different ideas of what they've just seen. Miyazaki carefully creates the portrait of one man's life, and such portraits when done well leave us with realistic ambiguity.

What struck me about The Wind Rises most, though, is the melancholy contrast of pure love and beauty with the compromises of everyday life. Jiro is a kind, thoughtful, tender-hearted individual who sticks up for the underdog, who has genuine desires to benefit humanity through his creations, who wants to be the best worker, friend, and spouse he can be. Compromises are necessary in an imperfect world, yet they always come with an emotional and relational price tag. As the poem goes, "the wind is rising -- we must try to live!" And yet, when living one's dreams leads to chaos and death, is that truly living at all? Jiro is the embodiment of that awful, wondrous reality that we live in a fallen world with fallen people who do not live by the better angels of their nature, and that even chasing a pure dream is no promise that we will not be tainted by the stain of it all.

I will be thinking about The Wind Rises for some time to come. There's plenty to ruminate on. You may not find that The Wind Rises is made for you; it is far more difficult to absorb and appreciate than any of Miyazaki's other works, and there's no shame in realizing that. It is not what we have come to expect from this master. Yet in my opinion, this may well be his masterwork, and if you are an animation fan, you need to see it.

The Wind Rises -- mild language, disturbing and mature themes, smoking realistic to the era -- A+