There comes a time in the career of a filmmaker whose previous work includes flying castles, moving castles, a pig that is also a seaplane pilot and a cat that is also a bus, when he must do something truly unusual: make a normal historical drama. And this is exactly what Hayao Miyazaki did with “The Wind Rises”, the film announced as his last (although there is always hope he may change his mind!): he made an elegant, polished, restrained prestige biopic about a real-life man, and he followed conventional story structures and beats all throughout, and included all the required “adult” topics, such as politics, career, romance, natural disasters, loss and so on. Too bad it’s animated, which means most people will never give it its dues as a proper film for grown-ups, but we are definitely dealing with a proper film for grown-ups here. The only problem is that it disposes precisely of those aspects that made Miyazaki’s work remarkable and worthwhile.
“The Wind Rises” is the story of Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of Japan’s World War II “Zero” fighter plane, a model known worldwide mostly in relation to the attacks on Pearl Harbor. The film portrays Jiro as a genius fully absorbed in his passion for beautiful flying machines, from his childhood to the historical moment when the Zero is finished and delivered to the Japanese Imperial Navy. Most of the screen time is dedicated to Jiro’s pre-war life as a young man studying airplanes and then climbing the ranks in his job at Mitsubishi, getting inspiration from shapes found in nature, thinking, talking and dreaming airplanes 24/7. It is, in fact, quite impossible to enjoy the movie if you don’t share Jiro’s (and Miyazaki’s) fascination for airplanes; thankfully, I do, but if you don’t (say, for example, if when watching “The Aviator”, you liked the stuff with the OCD and film industry parties best), you may want to stay away from “The Wind Rises”, because there isn’t much else going on here apart from plane-building. Jiro isn’t a particularly strong or interesting character: his defining characteristic is his competence in designing planes, and he is single-minded in his purpose. The film also devotes long stretches of time to Jiro’s strange imaginary conversations with his role model, Italian aircraft engineer Giovanni Battista Caproni, and, as you may guess, they talk about airplanes. There is a subplot about Jiro’s relationship with a beautiful girl he met during the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 (how’s that for a meet-cute?), but the less said about that, the better, as this part of the material doesn’t really rise above “sad romance with beautiful consumptive lady”.
Although Jiro’s work was a vital part of humanity’s deadliest war to date, the above paragraph contains the full extent of the World War II coverage present in Miyazaki’s 2-hour film: Jiro and his co-workers acknowledge in a deadpan manner that war is bad and misusing technology is also bad, but they pretty much leave it at that, as if simply talking about it would be enough to brush aside any worries about loss of life stemming from their innovations; “we only want to make beautiful things”, they say, again and again. Ironically, even though this is Miyazaki’s only historical film, it seems the least real. The battles in the purely fantasy universe of “Nausicaa” hit much harder, and portray the destructive and pointless nature of combat (as well as its thrilling aspects) in a more impactful manner. I understand that the filmmakers made a deliberate choice to focus on pre-war events, but if one chose to ignore the consequences of Jiro’s innovations, then why would he even be worth talking about? Biopics about regular people living regular lives aren’t really a thing. “The Wind Rises” summarizes WWII in an image of destroyed fighter planes; it’s a symbolic image, sure, but it could also convey that Jiro loves planes so much that he cares about them more than he cares about people. Other World War II animes like “Barefoot Gen” and Studio Ghibli’s own “Grave of the Fireflies” work because they focus on innocent bystanders whose lives are affected by the war; they don’t point fingers and they don’t make excuses either. “The Wind Rises” doth protest too much.
In terms of visuals, “The Wind Rises” looks lovely, every frame beautifully drawn and composed, and it displays it best when making full use of its medium: for instance, a dream in which young Jiro takes off in a surreal plane endowed with bird wings. The Great Kanto Earthquake makes for a stunning sequence, impressive in every way; I found this part of the film, as well as other glimpses into Japanese society and habits pre-WWII to be the most interesting aspects. Most of the time, though, the film feels stuck in petty domestic and professional drama centered around bland characters. Frankly, and I never thought I would say this about a Miyazaki film, “The Wind Rises” is kind of boring. Perhaps my expectations were too high due to Miyazaki’s excellent previous work and the long time I waited to see “The Wind Rises”, and of course it’s still better than anything made by an American studio in the same year, but if I’m looking at my watch hoping for the movie to end sooner, you’re doing something wrong. I wanted to love it, but I didn’t.
The next day I made sure to rewatch “Porco Rosso” to remind myself why I like Miyazaki and his flying machines.