The Wind Rises: Hayao Miyazaki’s final masterpiece

Hayao Miyazaki’s final animated feature The Wind Rises is out on disc this month. Ryan says farewell to a peerless filmmaking talent...

When he was four years old, Hayao Miyazaki watched from afar as the Japanese city of Utsonomiya was bombarded by Allied planes. The memories of that night in July 1945, as the flames stained the sky a smoky red, never left Miyazaki. Similarly apocalyptic vistas can be seen in the animated films he produced as an adult: the giants striding through a burning city in Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind; the falling bombs in Howl’s Moving Castle.

Those childhood years instilled in Miyazaki both the romance of aeroplanes and knowledge of their destructive power. His father, Katsuji Miyazaki, made a comfortable living from his company Miyazaki Airplane, which made parts for Japan’s Mitsubishi fighters. The young Miyazaki inherited, no doubt, no small amount of his father’s technical knowledge and appreciation of planes and flying – passions which repeatedly manifested themselves in his later films. 

Having climbed the ranks of the Japanese animation industry, Hayao Miyazaki directed his first feature, The Castle Of Cagliostro, in 1979. Over the course of the next 30 years, Miyazaki would go on to establish himself as one of the most exacting and gifted animators in the medium, and Studio Ghibli, which he founded in 1985 with fellow filmmaker Isao Takahata, became famous all over the world.

Although his movies were primarily lighter-than-air fantasies, Miyazaki’s body of work came with it a distinct thread of melancholy. In the rip-roaring adventure Castle In The Sky, the flying city of Laputa is as much an instrument of war as it is a wonderland of robot gardeners and verdent pastures, and in the end is considered so dangerous that it’s destroyed by the film’s young heroes. Porco Rosso was a thrilling film designed to lift the hearts of hardworking Japanese men, which it no doubt did, but even here there’s a hint of sadness: its title character, a porcine flying ace, has been left with traumatic memories of World War I, and its loss of life. The film’s most haunting image is of the ghosts of thousands of dead pilots floating into the afterlife in their bi-planes. 

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In many of his films, Miyazaki highlights our species’ ability to build wonderful things and our capacity for destruction. Nowhere is this more clearly expressed than in his final film, The Wind Rises.

Based on his own manga work, The Wind Rises is the fictionalised story of Jiro Horikoshi, the Japanese engineer famous for designing the Mitsubishi A5M and A6M fighters, which were both prized for their maneuverability in the early years of World War II. Although primarily a drama – a first for the animator – The Wind Rises still showcases Miyazaki’s talent for creating fantastical imagery.

The young Jiro finds inspiration in his dreams. Here, he meets the pioneering aircraft designer Caproni, who encourages Jiro to become a designer himself after showing off his latest piece of flying machinery. It’s in Jiro’s reveries that Miyazaki explores the duality of the fighter plane as both a work of art and an instrument of war. We see Jiro thrill at the rush of air as he flies through the clouds on a make-believe glider. Then, above him, a swarm of evil-looking flying machines swoop down like locusts. It’s an unforgettably sinister portent of the war to come.

The parallels between Jiro and Miyazaki are obvious. Both are dreamers as well as technicians, sitting at their workstations, pencil in hand. Both have a seemingly tireless work ethic. Both draw on their memories, the natural world and their imaginations for inspiration in their designs. Even when compared to Miyazaki’s other work, The Wind Rises is surely the animator’s most intimate and personal. 

The Wind Rises was also a risky film for Studio Ghibli. With hand-drawn animation becoming an increasingly rarified artform, even in Japan, the notion of making an animated period drama must have seemed like an incredible gamble, and it’s difficult to think of another studio that would even consider making a film where characters gather around to discuss the tolerances and shapes of tiny screws.

It’s said that Miyazaki originally intended to make a sequel to Ponyo, a project which would probably have been greeted with far greater enthusiasm by audiences who will probably always associate the Ghibli name exclusively with fantasies like Totoro and Spirited Away. Yet producer Toshio Suzuki did something incredibly rare in commercial filmmaking: he steered Miyazaki away from the more lucrative project, and encouraged the animator to pursue The Wind Rises instead.

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“I told him [Toshio Suzuki] that if we create such a film, that would be like digging the tomb of Studio Ghibli,” Miyazaki told Buzzfeed. “We were starting to create something that was the opposite of what we had been creating.”

The result is a perfect summation of Miyazaki’s philosophy and incredible abilities as an artist, if not the whimsical trappings more commonly associated with his filmmaking. The Wind Rises is beautifully animated – arguably as inspired, from a technical and artistic viewpoint, as anything he’d made. It’s poetic and, ultimately, tinged with sorrow.

The soaring movement of Jiro’s planes are matched by the stillness of the designer himself. A would-be pilot confounded by his own frail eyesight, Jiro can only dream of flying the planes he designs. Jiro’s imagination, absorption in his work and naivety are both his strength and his weakness; his careful observation of a mackerel bone gives him the idea for a new design of wing, yet his childlike suggestion that he could shave the weight off a fighter plane by removing the guns is met by peals of laughter from his colleagues. 

Jiro is depicted as an artist who has to live with the depressing burden of having his creations used to kill people. It’s something he never discusses with his colleagues or even his lover and eventual wife, Nahoko, but it’s alluded to, once again, in his dreams. “I choose to live in a world with pyramids,” Caproni tells Jiro, hinting at both the beauty of Ancient Egypt’s architecture and the human cost of building it. 

That Miyazaki doesn’t explicity go into the darker reaches of Japan’s involvement in World War II sparked controversy in Japan, and it could be seen as something of an omission in a film that explores some aspects of the Mitsubishi Zero’s design in such detail – the film ends in 1937, before the events of Pearl Harbour or Japan’s crushing defeat, which Miyazaki saw first-hand. Yet on second viewing, it’s clear that The Wind Rises is neither a war film nor a biopic in the strictest sense. The chance encounters, friendships and tragedies of Jiro’s life sprang entirely from Miyazaki’s imagination, and the drama appears to serve as a vehicle for Miyazaki’s personal philosophy rather than a historical document.

The film’s title, taken from a poem by French poet Paul Valery (“The wind rises! We must try to live!”), provides a strong indicator of Miyazaki’s thinking. Jiro and Nahoko meet twice by chance. In both instances, a gust of wind brings them together, and each time, the flush of their mutual attraction is interrupted by tragedy: first, the Great Kanto Earthquake (depicted with stunning imagination, both visually and aurally), which leaves Tokyo a burning ruin; and second, the revelation that Nahoko is suffering from a potentially fatal case of tuberculosis.

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Miyazaki’s characters are so softly-spoken and gentle that you might imagine them flying away on the breeze. Happiness, creativity, and even life itself, it seems, hang in a similarly delicate balance; all we can do is hang on as the wind rises all around us. 

At the film’s understated conclusion, Caproni and Jiro once again meet in a dream. Together, the pair talk affectionately about Jiro’s career; Jiro expresses his regret at designing war planes, yet ultimately agrees that he used his ten years of creativity to their fullest. They’re words that took on even greater meaning when, in September 2013 (just two months after The Wind Rises’ release in Japan), Miyazaki announced his retirement.

That announcement marked the end of an era for both traditional animation and Studio Ghibli. But like Jiro, Miyazaki undoubtedly used his years as an animator to their fullest; from The Castle Of Cagliostro to Kiki’s Delivery Service and Spirited Away to Ponyo, his films have thrilled audiences of all ages with their exquisite detail and passion.

The Wind Rises stands as a heartfelt and daring testament to Miyazaki’s humanity, skill and soaring imagination.

The Wind Rises is out on Blu-ray and DVD on the 29th September.