Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Starring: Hideaki Anno, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Miori Takimoto and Mansai Nomura
Release Date: May 9
It is very easy to say you are a fan of Studio Ghibli films and then rattle on about how much you love My Neighbour Totoro, Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle. And you would be perfectly right to do so, as these films merit the term ‘classic’, uniquely crafted in terms of narrative, style and overwhelming charm.
Less accessible are Miyazaki’s more mature films, those which deal more directly with adult themes, such as Grave of the Fireflies or My Neighbours the Yamada’s. And while both films are sublime, they are often quoted as difficult to watch due to their deeply traumatic stories or experimental narratives.
The Wind Rises is a pleasant enough tale, with a firm grip on the Miyazaki magic that makes Ghibli films so special. Yet it sporadically flirts with melodrama and is an overlong story which, some might argue, doesn’t really go anywhere.
It is based on the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of the Mitsubishi A5M, a fighter plane that was used in World War II. From childhood, he dreams of achieving flight, something he can never do due to his bad eyesight.
Between his fantasies of a Wonka-esque plane designer from Italy named Caproni, and his almost-perfect relationship with the child-like Nahoko, he works towards his goal of completing an aircraft that will ultimately change the course of history.
What is admirable about The Wind Rises, and indeed most Studio Ghibli films, is its ability to find the fantastic in the everyday, to give grassy fields and trains a sense of wonder. So it is an interesting choice that Miyazaki makes here, in that he views the everyday pointedly from both perspectives, presenting us with the fairy-tale AND gritty reality.
The daydreams of Jiro as a little boy will give you an all too familiar tingle under your skin, providing an uplifting escape into a realm of steampunk imps and nature at its most enchanting.
Enjoy it while it lasts however, because like most little boys, Jiro daydreams less and less as he grows older.
The perfectly elegant air-crafts he envisions quickly give way to flightless clunkers, torn scrap metal and giant garages stained with engine oil. It isn’t oppressive, but neither is it beautiful. It is reality, viewed through the eyes of a hopeful dreamer perhaps, but reality nonetheless.
This is encapsulated neatly in one scene where Jiro, with characteristic naivety, offers a cake to some neglected children waiting at a bus stop. It deliberately recalls that bus stop scene from My Neighbour Totoro in order to play itself out in a very different way.
This isn’t an outright betrayal for those who are only searching for whimsy and enchantment however; Miyazaki quite respectably seesaws the tone back and forth, never straying too far in either direction and keeping a steady pace.
This is an exploration of ambiguity, and he would be hard-pressed to find a better case study than this. From the very beginning, we want Jiro to succeed, we want him make his fantasies a reality. He is humanely and believably a good person. In that sense, this is a typically light-hearted family film.
And yet, the spectre of war is always hanging overhead. Despite the uplifting narrative of an underdog striving towards accomplishment, the end-result is clearly evident in the history books: the work of Jiro Horikoshi contributed significantly towards a lot of bloodshed and death in World War II. In his quest for a flight of fancy, Jiro has inadvertently backed the losing team.
The film doesn’t set out to excuse this fact, but it does establish that Japan’s contribution to World War II was not as black and white as it may have appeared at the time. With the economy clearly faltering at this point in history, Jiro’s cooperation with Germany provided Japan with a significant financial boost that the country direly needed.
This political aspect interweaves neatly with the more human drama at the films core. Jiro’s romance with Nahoko nicely compliments the airplane story on a symbolic level. Their relationship is a blurred reflection of Japan’s unfortunate position in this war. It is certainly more complex than it initially seems and highlights the importance of seizing the moment.
Unfortunately, while this functions as an apt metaphor, it doesn’t come across as particularly natural. It makes sense to show Jiro’s human side, that he isn’t simply a name in a history book, but this nonetheless feels like a constructed relationship rather than a happenstance. Their interactions feel stiff and choreographed, and it isn’t really given the room it needs to breathe.
Not that their relationship doesn’t allow for some quality scenes: Nahoko watching Jiro work until she falls asleep is a subtle yet powerful exhibition of their love. And a playful interaction involving a paper airplane, though not hugely memorable, is still very sweet to watch.
If this all sounds a little dense, it’s because it is. At 126 minutes, it’s not the longest Ghibli film there is (that title is still held by Princess Mononoke), but it certainly feels the longest. There are a lot of scenes that make sense in terms of pacing and momentum, but begin to drag towards the film’s end.
You’ll watch Jiro doodling at his desk numerable times, see plenty of planes being tested on the same air-field and a lot of wistful scenes involving Nahoku’s hair blowing in the wind. And while these scenes are more engaging than they sound, they don’t compliment the film as well as they could.
This is, allegedly, to be Hayao Miyazaki’s last film, his swansong.
This is a promise he has made before, and one hopes he will make again. It is no exaggeration to say that he is a staggeringly talented auteur, able to produce films that are unmistakably his, despite the fact that they all use a very similar art-style.
The Wind Rises may not be as accessible as his classics, but it is a brilliantly realized vision of a dark chapter in Japan’s history.
Written by Stephen Hill