The Wind Rises is Hayao Miyazaki’s first return to the director’s chair in five years (since Ponyo) and — if his statements in interviews are taken at face value — his final feature film in a career spanning six decades in Japanese animation. If that is indeed the case, it is in many ways a fitting swansong: it’s a layered, nuanced film that tells a story that is definitively Japanese yet universal, rooted in history yet filled with flights of fancy, superficially simple yet thought-provoking.
No grinning catbuses or scampering forest creatures await in this film, though. The Wind Rises is a fictionalised biopic of Jiro Horikoshi, the Japanese aeronautical engineer who designed the Mitsubishi ‘Zero’ fighter used in World War II, though it is its predecessor (the gull-winged A5M) that is mostly featured in the film. We meet him as a young boy in provincial Japan in the late 1910s, consumed by a love of aeroplanes but aware that his nearsightedness means that he’ll never become a pilot.
Never mind, though: he finds his destiny in an aircraft-magazine-fueled dream sequence in which he meets Count Caproni, Italian aircraft designer extraordinaire, who extols the virtues of his craft: become an engineer and you can create planes, not merely fly them. Jiro sets his mind to becoming just such an engineer, and we see years of paper and slide rules fly past.
Returning to university in Tokyo from a holiday by train, Jiro is swept up in the chaos of an earthquake, where he meets (and renders assistance to) a young woman and her maid, and so begins the other half of this film’s story: the sweet and slightly diffident courtship of Jiro and Naoko, the girl he meets by chance on the train.
Miyazaki mixes things up here, combining Jiro Horikoshi’s real story — from his schooling to his job at Mitsubishi, where he eventually became the lead designer on the A5M and the Zero — with a fictional, grandly romantic love story. Jiro’s relationship with Naoko grows in step with his career and his pursuit of the beautiful plane that soars through his dreams, and the director’s craft is evident in the way the two mesh together, without feeling too forced or overdone.
As far as I can tell — not being a domain expert — the occasionally very detailed historical links in the film outside Jiro’s story look accurate, too. Caproni really did build his doomed but gorgeous nine-winged transatlantic airliner (the Ca.60), the Germans and the Japanese definitely shared airframe technology, and the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake was if anything more devastating than it looked in the film.
The flush-riveted, aluminium-alloyed elephant in the room, of course, is World War Two, and Miyazaki chooses to treat the subject somewhat gingerly. He focuses more on his main character, the driven designer — far more interested in building a beautiful flying machine than in what it would be used for — than on the consequences of his creation.
It’s not like the subject is never broached, however: Jiro is haunted from the beginning by dreams of the destruction wrought by bombers, and his final conversation with Caproni does treat the topic explicitly. Perhaps the most comfortable in his role as defence contractor is Caproni, in the end. He tells Jiro in his dreams that for now, the military are calling the shots, but when peacetime comes, it’s this he’s going to build — a design fitted for carrying passengers, and the one he’s most proud of.
Rather than on the methodical construction of machines of war, then, we are shown Jiro’s growth and dedication to his craft as an engineer, with some considerable emphasis on the role of creativity and intuition, something that I personally thought was extremely well done (speaking as someone from a technical background, though not aerospace engineeering). We’re used to seeing portrayals of artists and writers, poets and musicians in cinema, searching for that sound or perfecting that final masterpiece. It’s unusual to see this sort of story written about an engineer, and no less engrossing.
Technically, the film is as beautifully made as we’ve come to expect from a Ghibli production, with excellent voice acting and beautiful visuals. Though the universe of this film is arguably “more real” than some of the more fanciful Ghibli settings it seems no less alive, and Miyazaki’s eye for dramatic composition and subtlety of movement is as strong as ever. There are some nice touches in the film’s non-Japanese settings, too, with a Mediterranean influence to the score from regular collaborator Joe Hisaishi early on for Jiro’s conversations with Caproni, and a nod to the more graphical compositions of Expressionist cinema in the scenes set in Germany.
According to an interview in 2011, Hayao Miyazaki said that he was inspired to tell this particular story by a quotation from the real Jiro Horikoshi: “All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful.” With The Wind Rises, he certainly has. I can’t recommend it enough.
The Wind Rises opened in Australian cinemas on the 27th of February 2014. See the official site for details.