NB: the screening we attended was of the subtitled, Japanese language version of The Wind Rises rather than the dubbed edition.
Director and artist Hayao Miyazaki’s films have long shown us glimpses of the romance and freedom of flying, from the gliding heroine in Nausicaa to the gravity-defying ironclads of Laputa and beyond. It’s fitting, then, that what Miyazaki has firmly stated is his final movie, The Wind Rises, should place that subject at the forefront of its story.
Based on the life of Japanese engineer Jiro Horikoshi and how he came to create the formidable Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter plane, The Wind Rises is an animated drama that is both intimate and grand. Introducing Jiro as a young boy, the film shows us the dreams and experiences that led him to create one of the fastest and most feared planes of the Second World War as an adult.
The benevolent wood spirits of Miyazaki’s previous work may be far behind, but the animator can’t resist bringing a sense of the fantastical to his story – Jiro’s dreams of majestic and faintly frightening flying machines have the same wondrous atmosphere as Porco Rosso or Kiki’s Delivery Service, while one nightmare – of shadowy figures bombing a city – has the eerie power of similar sequences in Howl’s Moving Castle.
These dreams tell us a lot about Jiro’s character, as they ebb and flow in and out of the narrative, sometimes spilling into it without a seam. As well as an engineer, Jiro is also an artist and a dreamer; he may be designing instruments of war, but he sees his planes as spiritual and connected to nature. He takes inspiration from everywhere, from the seductive curve of a mackerel bone (his meal of choice) to the ripple of a domestic German radiator.
Parallels between Jiro’s personality and Miyazaki’s are obvious: like Jiro, Miyazaki is a technician, artist and romantic. His films are shot through with humanity and poetry, but they’re also remarkable for their detail and precision. Time has done little to dim those qualities, and there are moments in The Wind Rises that are as breathtaking and imaginative as any of his earlier films. His flying machines have real weight and power, like savage beasts that burst into spluttering, thundering life.
It’s worth mentioning that The Wind Rises’ sound design is as captivating as its animation. The Great Kanto earthquake, which turned Tokyo and surrounding areas into a burning ruin in 1923, looks astonishing in Miyazaki’s hands – the landscape ripples like an undulating snake, violently throwing buildings off its back – but it also sounds monumental. There’s a noise like a giant sucking in air, and then, unexpectedly, an eerie silence.
Rather than assault us with the screams of victims or the crashing of collapsing structures, Miyaki concentrates instead on the sound of dozens of tiny pebbles rattling in the aftershock. There are unexpected choices like this throughout The Wind Rises – Jiro is a quiet, self-contained man, and the soundscape is similarly elegant and uncluttered.
As the story follows Jiro’s growth as a designer, his romance with a pretty, wealthy girl named Naoko emerge as a touching refrain. Fittingly, it’s the winds of fate that bring them together, and their relationship provides the film with its most emotional and melancholy moments. Naoko is one of several carefully-wrought characters surrounding Jiro – others include his abrupt yet ultimately kind-hearted boss, Mr Kurokawa (Miyazaki lovingly captures the way his hair bounces as this stout little man marches purposefully around his office), and a somewhat spooky German called Castorp, who eats watercress by the plateful and makes eerie predictions of a coming war.
There are quite a few portentous moments in The Wind Rises, but the film stops short of exploring exactly how Jiro feels about the destructive power of his creation. Miyazaki is at pains to depict Jiro as a sensitive, generous man, and also points out the Japanese government’s tendency to spend untold amounts of money on building war machines while its citizens starve in the wake of economic disaster. But the animator doesn’t dwell on the Mitsubishi’s ruthless efficiency as a fighter plane, and focuses instead on its beauty as a piece of design – “it’s avante garde” is how Jiro’s colleague and closest friend adoringly describes it.
This could be seen as something of an omission, especially when Miyazaki lingers on such details as the refinement of rivets, or design meetings about weight reduction. With a duration of more than two hours, some viewers may find Miyazaki’s fascination with the minutiae of aviation a little wearing. But as you’d expect from one of the animator’s films, his way with colour, line and movement is present in every frame. Miyazaki finds something to wonder at in each solitary moment, from torrential rain hitting a parasol to the way the light plays on the water as a plane soars overhead.
It’s details like these, and the gentle warmth of the characters, that ultimately give The Wind Rises its beating heart. The construction of planes and the beauty of flight may be Miyazaki’s passion, but as ever, he has a poet’s eye for relationships and life’s delicate equilibrium.
As the end credits roll on Miyazaki’s final film, it’s impossible not to reflect on his extraordinary body of work, and remember that this intensely personal animated drama is its capstone. The Wind Rises ends his filmmaking career on a beautiful, meditative note.
The Wind Rises is out in the UK on the 9th May 2014.
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