Hayao Miyazaki has set his own standard so high that even he might doubt his ability to meet it–and, at 72, he perhaps sensibly has announced that this will be his last film (though he’s made such claims before). If this is indeed the note he is to go out on, it’s not the highest in his filmography, but it’s a beautiful, admirable film nonetheless. I give him credit for choosing a somewhat unusual subject for his last work: the life of aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi, best known for designing the Mitsubishi Zero–the principal Japanese fighter of World War II. Horikoshi’s biography might not in of itself compel much interest outside of Japan (or even inside it, since his actual life story seems relatively unremarkable), but Miyazaki makes the film as much an ode to the exhilaration of flight and the thrill of invention as a biography, and the results are, as with so much of Miyazaki’s work, tender, warm, and magical.
The story covers some 30 years, from Jiro’s flight-obsessed youth, where he holds a kind of dream-communion with the great Italian engineer Caproni, to his experiences in the 1923 Kanto Earthquake, where he first meets Naoko, the girl who will become his great love, to his career as an engineer, being sent to Germany to learn from the Junkers company, only to be treated with suspicion by the Gestapo (or their predecessors), to his reunion with Naoko, the revelation of her tubercular condition, and the creation of the Zero.
The Wind Rises is often exhilarating. The flight sequences are gorgeous, seeking to recapture the sense of awe of early flight as enormous, beautiful, frail machines take the air, sometimes nightmarishly ripping apart, more often soaring.
The Wind Rises is sometimes horrifying. The Kanto Earthquake is treated with an eerie simplicity, as the ground literally ripples like a shaken sheet, and demonic cries fill the air. When Naoko begins coughing up blood, we first see it as rainlike drops upon her painting; then, silently, we see her trying to hold in the blood which is pouring out of her. It sounds more gruesome than it really is, but it subtly drives home the seriousness of her condition.
The Wind Rises is often touching, especially in the depiction of Jiro and Naoko’s relationship, which defies her illness and his work to bring them together for whatever time they have. Their courtship, at a country inn owned by Naoko’s family, is simple and sweet, while their marriage is tender and devoted, featuring possibly the most overt implication of sex in a Miyazaki film (no graphic content, of course). And their wedding scene, conducted in great haste and officiated by Jiro’s lovably short-tempered supervisor, Kurokawa, is funny and lovely at the same time, as Naoko, dressed in a multicolored kimono, moves almost dreamlike towards their union. Another scene, where Jiro works away while holding the infirm Naoko’s hand (she will not let go, not even to let him go smoke), is equally touching, in its own down-to-earth way.
The Wind Rises is quite clever. Miyazaki wrote the manga on which the film is based (which itself was inspired by a short story), and some of the motifs and connections may have originated there, but no matter. Flight is obviously the film’s central theme, and it touches on more than just airplanes; Jiro and Naoko first meet when his hat is blown off and she catches it, and they are reunited when her umbrella is blown off a hill and lands near him. Elsewhere, Jiro, eating a piece of mackerel, notices the curve of the bone and works it into his wing design; the other characters gently mock him about this for the rest of the film. And it has an odd wit, too–at Naoko’s family inn, Jiro meets the mysterious German Castorp, who one moment cheerfully talks about how Germany and Japan will be destroyed by their own militarism, and the next warmly regards Jiro and Naoko’s match. Better still, when we see him first, he is eating an enormous mound of greens, almost grazing more than eating. It’s an strange moment, but a funny one.
The Wind Rises is occasionally frustrating. Jiro himself is actually the film’s biggest weakness, in some ways; a good man and a smart one, he nonetheless lacks charisma, and leaves a tiny hole at the film’s center. I’m not saying I wanted histrionics or some ham-fisted attempt at grittiness, but Jiro seems to lack a certain inner fire. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s lackluster voice acting in the Disney dub doesn’t help; I don’t know if he was trying to underplay the role and went too far, or if he found the character uninspiring, but his work doesn’t help an already bland character. Also, without going into too much detail, the final scene doesn’t totally work. It feels as if the film, leisurely and deliberate for the rest of its running time, was compelled to wrap things up as quickly as possible, and the film ends on something of an off note (the final line especially feels…unnecessary). It’s not a major detriment, but it’s annoying nonetheless.
But there’s so much beauty on display here, so many moments of pure Miyazaki wonder, that it must counted a **** film. The animation is as gorgeous as you’d expect from Studio Ghibli, and Joe Hisaishi’s music is excellent. And, JGL’s limp work aside, the English voice cast is strong, especially Martin Short as Kurokawa and Werner Herzog as Castorp (and his cadences add immeasurably to the success of that character). John Krasinski voices Jiro’s sardonic friend and fellow engineer Kiro Honjo, and his bitter humor is a most effective counterbalance to Jiro’s gentleness. Emily Blunt is fine as Naoko, though the role is not greatly demanding. Stanley Tucci’s Italian accent as Caproni is a little heavy, but he makes up for it with understated gusto.
There has been some controversy around this film, dealing mostly with the question of, is it a whitewash of history? The final moments attempt to touch on Jiro’s legacy, and he himself expresses dismay at the use of his creations for war. Caproni, though, argues that he made his dreams come true, and that is what matters. Jiro throughout is an apolitical figure, and German and Japanese bureaucrats and police alike are shadowy, unwholesome forces. Jiro just wants to make airplanes, and that’s what the film centers around. Is it problematic that the film doesn’t tackle these issues more fully, especially given Japan’s continued refusal to recognize the Nanking Massacre? Maybe. But it does touch on these matters in its own subtle way, especially in Castorp’s monologue, where he specifically cites the war in China and the puppet state of Manchukuo, or in the scenes of Jiro and Honjo in Germany, where thuggish police roam the streets and treat the Japanese characters like spies. (At another point, Jiro is sought by the Japanese secret police, for unclear reasons.)
I’m reminded of Stuart Galbraith’s words on Kurosawa’s late film Rhapsody in August: “This is not a film about Pearl Harbor or Japanese atrocities. It’s the story of an old woman and her family.”*
And in that spirit, this ultimately not the story of war or the use of the Zero in war. It’s the story of a man and his love of flight.
*I’m paraphrasing, but that’s pretty close. I’m also citing Galbraith’s book The Emperor and the Wolf, an absolutely incredible work. Absolutely recommended.