"The Wind Rises" into high ratings
Following the release of his latest feature, The Wind Rises, 73-year-old animator Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement from filmmaking. With Miyazaki’s world-renowned filmography including titles such as “Spirited Away” and “Princess Mononoke,” “The Wind Rises” marks the end of an era in cinema.
Miyazaki singlehandedly turned the West’s focus to Japanese cinema like none before him and is arguably the first animator to earn auteur status.
Now, his final film tells the story of Japanese aeroengineer Jiro Horikoshi. The picture portrays Jiro as an artist and culminates in the creation of his magnum opus: the Mitsubishi Zero fighter plane. Miyazaki’s animation is beautiful as always and his longtime collaborator Joe Hisaishi joins him again one last time. Set to Hisaishi’s score, the film has a nostalgic tone and feels as though Miyazaki is musing on his own career via Jiro’s incredible arrangements.
The story begins several decades before World War II, when the child Jiro first realizes his calling. Jiro sees flight as a beautiful dream, but is too nearsighted to captain the planes himself. Italian aeropioneer Count Caproni visits Jiro in a dream and reveals his calling is designing, not manning, aircrafts.
Caproni becomes Jiro’s mentor and encourages his work in dreams throughout the film. That Jiro turns to the Italian Caproni for guidance reflects the theme of Japan as a nation in flux — a nation decades behind the West but pushing to modernize. This theme becomes more prominent as the film progresses, especially after the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 — depicted in an exquisitely pure-Miyazaki sequence — which cripples the economy and compounds Japan’s inability to compete with the West. Jiro’s friend Hanjo makes the theme explicit in his constant complaint that “Japan is backward” and “decades behind the West,” but the simple shots of oxen pulling planes out to the airstrip express the same theme with perhaps a softer implication.
The rise of poverty, however, has no apparent effect on Jiro himself; he stays in university, finds work right out of school, travels the world and stays in luxury resorts. Jiro experiences Japan’s poverty of spirit nonetheless. Miyazaki makes a wise choice to direct the film like this — as an artist, Jiro cannot provide the relief a politician, say, or a social worker would. Rather, Jiro’s work is to be the triumph of the Japanese spirit, with the film focusing on the symbolic significance of his work as opposed to its military significance. Creating the world’s finest plane would signify Japan is no longer backward — medieval, even — compared to the West. And indeed, it was Jiro’s Zero that allowed Imperial Japan to dominate the Pacific at the outset of the war.
But therein lies the film’s central flaw. Jiro makes beautiful planes, but they are ultimately used to kill — a fact the film brushes over. The film really only addresses the issue in one scene. Jiro sees in a dream what his work will be used for, but Caproni comes and settles his conscience by saying, “We’d all prefer a world with pyramids rather than one without them, right?” — ignoring the crimes against humanity committed in building the pyramids. The justification is sorely lacking.
Despite this flaw, “The Wind Rises” is a still a Miyazaki picture, and as such, beautiful. For those unfamiliar with Miyazaki’s work, watching one of his more playful and delightfully strange films first would serve as a better introduction to his talent. But still, “The Wind Rises” is thematically rich, evincing an interesting and conflicted relationship with the West, depicting the Western world as both inhumane and domineering, while at the same time drawing heavily on Western art. It’s complicated, but it works.