The Wind Rises (2013) Review

Hayao Miyazaki’s latest film (and his last, if his most recent retirement plan is to be believed) has stirred up all sorts of controversy since its Japanese release in June. Its recent release in the states, a one week engagement in Los Angeles to qualify for Oscar nomination, has stirred the pot once more. Artistically, The Wind Rises is no different than any of the director’s previous films; it concerns the same themes that have driven Miyazaki since the beginning of his career: a love of pastorals, a veneration of classical Japanese culture, and pacifism in the face of war. The only difference in this concluding feature is that its strong-willed protagonist is the unfictional Jirô Horikoshi, the designer of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, the fiercest fighter plane in World War II.

The film is a loose biography of Jirô, beginning in his early childhood and following through his career as one of the preeminent engineers in aeronautic history. The opening scene is squarely inside Miyazaki’s wheelhouse, with the young Jirô climbing onto his roof to hand crank his personal flying machine and then take flight over his rural town. The sequence is a dream, the first of many wherein Jirô’s nearsightedness is no obstacle to his aerial adventures, and within which he converses with his idol, the Italian engineer Giovanni Caproni. Caproni encourages the young Japanese boy and tells him to pursue his dreams, and throughout the film the two meet many times to discuss the beauty of flight – and its curse. When Jirô is working for Mitsubishi, designing planes that will one day fight in wars (with whom it is not yet clear), he voices his unease to Caproni. Without the military willing to pay for his designs, he cannot achieve his fantastical dreams, but those dreams will ultimately be used for destruction. “Would you rather live in a world with pyramids or without them?” asks Caproni. “I chose to live in a world with pyramids.”

It is a vague justification, but it is all Miyazaki is willing to provide us. As with much of the film, the questions surrounding the rightness and the wrongness of Jirô’s quest are left to swirl, with the world racing swiftly towards conflict on the margins of his single-minded dream.

In his proposal for the film, Miyazaki wrote, “I wanted to portray a devoted individual who pursed his dream head on. Dreams possess an element of madness, and such poison must not be concealed. Yearning for something too beautiful can ruin you. Swaying toward beauty may come at a price.”

At 126 minutes, The Wind Rises is a long film, and midway through it is difficult to decide whether it is a fictionalized biography or a fictional love story. During the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, when Jirô is on his way to Tokyo to begin his career, he meets a young woman named Naoko Satomi. He selflessly comes to her aid, and she remains in his mind for years, the only other constant beside his engineering dream. Much later, on a vacation to a summer resort, he encounters her again. Their courtship is a prolonged process, which may surprise audiences who thought they bought a ticket to some grand anti-war film.

It is possible that The Wind Rises is an anti-war film, but what it is, mainly, is a meditation on beauty, history, impermanence and dreams. Naoko Satomi is entirely fictional. She never existed. Not before World War II and not after. Her sweetness and devotion to Jirô, his dedication to her, those are the fancies of Hayao Miyazaki and Tatsuo Hori, upon whose novel the film is partially based. Fewer critics seem to take issue with this artistic license than to the following:

  • South Korea disliked the film’s failure to mention that the planes Jirô designed were built by forced laborers on the Korean peninsula.
  • Japanese nationalists called Miyazaki a traitor for the film’s focus on “the futility of war.”
  • Doctors abhorred the portrayal of casual smoking in several scenes (more than eight).

Miyazaki has responded to these critics in turn. The film is set predominantly in the 1920s and ‘30s; smoking was popular and its hazards mostly unknown. The film is PG-13 and intended more for adults than children, but perhaps Miyazaki has more faith in children than the MPAA. To the nationalists, Miyazaki said, “Horikoshi,” a personal hero, “wasn’t thinking about weapons – really all he desired was to make exquisite planes.” He met a group of Korean reporters in Tokyo and was quoted in Mainichi Shimbun to say Jirô “was someone who resisted demands from the military. I wonder if he should be liable for anything just because he lived in that period.”

Of course when we quibble over these points, both creator and consumer seem to be rationalizing. There really is no further explanation for art than, “I chose to live in a world with pyramids.”

For those who cannot accept that, Hiroyuki Ota published a great interview with Miyazaki, which I have linked here, that provides insight into the director’s motivation:

“Including myself, a generation of Japanese men who grew up during a certain period have very complex feelings about World War II, and the Zero symbolizes our collective psyche. Japan went to war out of foolish arrogance, caused trouble throughout the entire East Asia, and ultimately brought destruction upon itself…. But for all this humiliating history, the Zero represented one of the few things that we Japanese could be proud of.”

So, with critics, audiences and Studio Ghibli all raising such a ruckus over the historical record, what of the film itself? Taken as a story, as an animated picture, what is here for us to enjoy?

It is a slow film. It is beautiful to look at, with every frame seeming to sway and flow, as if every person and machine were being pulled by the divine winds of Japan. Miyazaki has poured his soul into the sweeping vistas of his country at the turn of the century, her grasses pastel green and brown, her skies an infinite cerulean waiting to embrace us. Surprisingly, almost jarringly, many of the sound effects come from human mouths – meaning that when a plane starts up, when the ’23 earthquake hits, when a train is about to explode, it is audibly a person making the noise. It adds to the overall dreamlike quality of the movie, reminding the audience that what we are watching is a work of art. A human work of painstaking craft and emotion.

The real Jirô once said, “All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful.”

In Paul Valéry’s poem Le cimetière marin, “The Graveyard by the Sea,” Valéry writes, “Le vent se lève! . . . il faut tenter de vivre!” (The wind is rising…. We must try to live.) It is a poem which exalts the spirit in the face of death and breaking waves. The Wind Rises does the same, exalting the genius and spirit of one man who pulled Japan into the modern world.

But the film has no desire to make some grand message. The politics that enclose Jirô are not the film’s focus. He cannot escape them, but though the film seems in every scene to be leading towards the pain and devastation the Zero fighters will cause, the tension dissipates with the successful flight of the A5M prototype, the direct predecessor to the A6M, and ends in yet another dream. Destruction greater than the Kanto Earthquake awaits Japan, the price it will pay for its modernity, but Miyazaki chose subtlety over sermonizing.

The Wind Rises balances the perspectives of children and adults better than any of Miyazaki’s previous works. On the surface it is a lush romance, steeped in the traditions of a Japan that no longer exists. Just underneath, it bristles with the pain, less than a century old, of a proud country trying desperately to catch up to the West. Jirô and his colleague lament that they still use oxen to tow their prototypes to the airfield. Germany, their ally, treats them like children with talent for little more than mimicry.

If viewers are let down by the lack of consequences for Jirô’s striving, The Grave of the Fireflies (1988), directed by Miyazaki’s friend Isao Takahata, and animated by Studio Ghibli, provides a stark companion piece to the engineer’s bright hope. But that of course is the point. The Wind Rises is the promise of that rising wind, the honor done to a beautiful mind, that presages the havoc of a typhoon.

Miyazaki is telling us that the dream ends. When it does, we must try to live.

This is a filmmaker who will be greatly missed.

Based on Miyazaki’s Kaze Tachinu manga, in part based on Kaze Tachinu by Tatsuo Hori

The Wind Rises (2013)
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Toho (Japan) / Touchstone Pictures (U.S.)
126 Minutes

*I was surprised to read that Hideaki Anno performed the voice of Jirô Horikoshi, thinking I was mistaken in recognizing the name as that Anno. But no, it really is that Anno, creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion. Anno got his start with Studio Ghibli, animating the giant monster in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. It speaks volumes that Miyazaki chose a director, not an actor, to be the main voice of his final film. As to Anno’s delivery – well, he’s able to communicate a quiet, purposeful Japanese man well enough.

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