What are my thoughts on Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises? A jumble of conflicting thoughts and feelings. Powerful. Inspiring. Masterpiece. Verklempt. I have viewed this movie twice, in Japanese and US soundtracks, and on both occasions was overwhelmed. This is a beautiful, deeply haunting film; its heaviness grips my heart and mind, the images soar and sing. There is so much to absorb that you need time to process it all.
The Wind Rises is not a fast or frenetic film; it has a patience and speed that contrasts greatly with the action-adventure serials that defined Miyazaki's youth. But this movie is emotionally overpowering; its images have a sweeping grandeur, like the great surrealist and expressionist painters. Its mood is one of reflection, observation, sadness. It's final message - "The wind is rising, We must live! - is not a message of optimism, but perseverance. It is a celebration of the imagination and the redemptive power of art.
Officially, The Wind Rises is an historical biography, adapted from a fictional memoir about the life of Japanese airplane engineer and designer Jiro Horikoshi, which was then adapted by Hayao Miyazaki into a 2009 graphic novel. The movie tells the tale of Horikoshi's life in the early 20th Century, witnessing the Great Kanto Earthquake and two World Wars, and his haunted dreams of creating wonderful flying machines. That's the "official" explanation; but I also see a parallel story that is deeply auto-biographical: Hayao Miyazaki's own life, his childhood, his passions and dreams. Everything is presented with a surreal Fellini flair; characters, moments and histories play out like Jungian archetypes. The Wind Rises plays like a series of extended lucid dreams in the director's own mind.
There are times when I am watching the young Jiro Horikoshi, and I am convinced that I am seeing Miyazaki as a child, frustrated by his eyesight and dreaming of airplanes. At other moments, Miyazaki's voice inhabits that of Marconi, the Italian airplane engineer who serves as spirit guide and Greek Chorus. At yet other moments, it is the Mitsubishi boss Kurokawa who emerges as Miyazaki, the stern and demanding Ghibli studio boss. Miyazaki the Elder dispenses wisdom to Miyazaki the Younger, guiding and warning in equal measure.
In one scene, Kurokawa informs Jiro that he has won the job of designing an experimental aircraft. Yuri replies that he wants his childhood friend, and fellow engineer, on the project. Kurokawa flatly refuses with a telling lesson: Never work on projects with your friends; you'll only become rivals. It is impossible for me not to think of Hayao Miyazaki's long partnership with director Isao Takahata, which began at the Toei Doga studio and ended at Studio Ghibli. Theirs is very much like a McCartney-Lennon relationship, before and after the Beatles breakup.
The twin biographies of Horikoshi and Miyazaki flow and intertwine. Miyazaki obsessed about airplanes practically since his birth. Giovanni Caproni was a childhood hero; indeed, "Ghibli" was named after one of his airplanes. As a professional animator, he and his peers struggled with a sense of inadequacy, of being "20 years behind," of needing to learn the craft the rest of the world mastered. They yearned for the respect of the world, which looked down upon them as primitive. Could this have been a driving force that led to the creation of The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun in 1968? Perhaps. And let us not forget that the young Miyazaki, on his first European trip, met author Astrid Lindgren in hopes of collaborating on the Pipi Longstockings anime. The project was cooly rejected, dismissed. This parallels the cold reception received by Horikoshi and his fellow Japanese designers on their encounter with Germany's modern, technologically advanced airplanes.
And, of course, the film's heroine Naoko serves as a parallel for Miyazaki's eternal romantic muse, his wife Akemi Ota. She was also the inspiration for the heroines in Sherlock Hound, Howl's Moving Castle and Ponyo; once again, there is tension between her art and his career, but this time tempered by a personal tragedy that parallels Jiro's professional tragedy. He is doomed to lose everything and everyone he holds dear. He is destined to walk among the gravestones of his dreams.
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There is a way that Miyazaki often draws his characters when they are alone, and we see it here with the child Juri at the beginning. He is frustrated by his poor eyesight, fearing that his thick glasses will mean the end of his dreams of flying aircraft. He face appears thoughtful, but grim; the line on his mouth is curved ever so slightly downward. I've seen this face on other Miyazaki characters before, particularly Nausicaa, his great heroine; Satsuki, the older sister from My Neighbor Totoro; Shizuku, the teenage heroine from Mimi wo Sumaseba. I think that deep sadness gets to the heart of Miyazaki and his work of the Studio Ghibli era. He is an artist who struggles, fights, perseveres, survives.
Above all else, two tragedies traumatized, and defined, Hayao Miyazaki at a young age. The first was the devastation of the Second World War, the destruction of his homeland, and the difficult aftermath. Apocalyptic visions of doom permeate his work, so much that we almost take it for granted. "The Wind is Rising" - inspiration and destruction in equal measure.
The second great trauma for Miyazaki was his mother's decade-long battle with tuberculosis. Her long illness against the disease emerged as a major story thread in My Neighbor Totoro, and the latter chapters of the Nausicaa graphic novel, which lays the artist's emotions bare. I have often wondered if his mother's death in 1981, along with professional decline at that period (in the early 1980s, his animation career was all but finished), was the catalyst behind Miyazaki's gloomier, more complex tone that emerged in the 1984 Nausicaa film. The second half of his career is defined as more personal, more probing. The first half...well, there's quite a difference between Nausicaa and Animal Treasure Island, wouldn't you say?
The Wind Rises is Miyazaki's most personal, almost confessional work, a fusion of Kurosawa and Fellini; of despair and survivor's guilt; of respect for, and abhorrence against, his home country; of romanticism and innocence; of the love for his wife and passion for his art; and an abiding awareness of what that ambition has cost his family. A vast emotional palette is on display, but balanced by the wisdom of age. Astonishment and sorrow are presented in equal measure, with a calm acceptance.
In this vein lies the relationship between Jiro and Naoko. Their courtship is freely playful, innocent. Theirs is a romance right out of 1940s Hollywood; one of my favorite scenes shows them playing with a paper airplane, made by Jiro, that freely morphs into a small bird and back again (Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro are quoted here). But once marriage is proposed, Naoko reveals that she is stricken with tuberculosis, a death sentence in 1930s Japan. Their relationship suddenly takes an ephemeral turn; as her health declines, every moment becomes precious. Moments of beauty are cherished but suffering and loss must be endured.
The moment when Naoko collapses in a lung hemorrhage, coughing blood on her painting, carries a devastating power. It shocks you to the core, and you immediately feel it in your gut. You know how this gentle wife's story will end. It is here that Miyazaki intertwines the couple's passions and tragedies - his professional dreams, her art and freedom and illness, their marriage. What happens in one sphere is symbolically linked to the other. Naoko's quiet resistance, her peaceful defiance of her fate, her dreams of living a normal life - these are her cursed dreams.
For me, the film's most powerful moment is not the terrifying Kanto Earthquake, but the quiet scene where Jiro and Naoko are married at the Kurokawa residence. Naoko's presence, in glorious traditional dress, is almost ghost-like. She floats above the ground, her hair flowing, the red of her kimono glowing. And her face is one of tremendous sadness, gratitude, and acceptance. Hers is the face of a young person who knows they will die young, and every second becomes miraculous. Kurokawa recites the vows, pronounces the young couple married, then fights back his tears, overwhelmed. Verklempt.
In one early scene, the boy Jiro sees a small child being threatened by larger bullies. He immediately rushes to the rescue, and we are shown his courage and virtue. As an adult, the scenario echoes: a young man runs through nighttime streets, pursued by the Gestapo, who snarl and bark as they run. This time, Jiro stands still, motionless. He does not intervene.
Jiro Horikoshi's career presents a moral paradox that is central to The Wind Rises: In order to pursue his dream of creating beautiful flying machines, he must create warplanes that will kill. His Zero Fighter will be remembered for Pearl Harbor, the Pacific War, the Kamikaze divers. Miyazaki makes his moral stance clear, not only against the war, but Japan's slide into fascism and total destruction. But how does Jiro feel? Does he sufficiently rebel against this madness? Does he fight harder against this momentum to war? Does he stand up to the bullies and defend the innocent?
"Airplanes are cursed dreams," Caproni intones, and throughout his life, Jiro's dreams of flight are corrupted by nightmares of war, death, destruction. Planes are smashed to pieces. Cities are bombed and set ablaze. Yet he chooses to create, despite these prophesies; he chooses to live in "a world with pyramids." It is uncertain how much guilt he feels, or how much responsibility he accepts, for his actions. His struggle to preserve beauty in the face of tragedy is a quiet, internal one. This has proven challenging for some American viewers.
I personally find this makes the character of Jiro Horikoshi more nuanced, more complex. Heroes in American movies, and especially American animated films, are expected to be perfectly virtuous and absolutely good. Real life doesn't quite work that way, and neither does Hayao Miyazaki. His characters, just like Isao Takahata's characters, are allowed the freedom to be flawed, to make mistakes. And you are allowed the freedom to criticize their actions. The question of the war is one of The Wind Rises' central themes, just as it is a central theme in Hayao Miyazaki's life. What's fascinating is how he keenly identifies Japan's sense of insecurity, their fear of becoming lost to modernity, as the root cause that leads to empire and war. The airplane engineers are seduced by Germany's industrial strength, their modern technology, their metallic planes, and desperately feel the need to catch up. And so Japan embarks on grand dreams of military might, and the questions are asked: "Who will be the target of all these bombers? Against whom will you wage war? The answer, almost carelessly: "Everyone. Maybe China, maybe America."
I don't put Jiro into this class; he's a true artist who is only concerned with creation, not destruction. And so he forges forward, not wishing to design warplanes but doing so anyway. Could he have chosen differently? Could he have resisted the war machine? Could he have turned the irrational march toward war and destruction? And is it fair to put such burdens on his shoulders? All are debatable points; none are easily resolved.
Obviously, we cannot discuss The Wind Rises without singing its praises as an animated film. This movie looks absolutely spectacular, a new high-water mark for Japanese animation. Given the film's enormous budget by Japanese standards ($50 million, five times as much as 1997's Princess Mononoke), we never see another anime film so positively lush, so immaculately detailed, so thrillingly alive. Every corner of the screen is animated with grass, flowers, trees, clouds, men and airplanes.
The Caproni dream sequences allow Miyazaki to indulge his surrealist side, and has truly become a master of the form - the Fellini of our age. His flying machines are bird-machine hybrids, with feather wings and engines that pulse like heart beats. Enormous flying craft are packed with jovial, celebrating families, stretching and bulging the frames. Caproni's planes are an endless, enormous party. It's impossible to not become intoxicated by his visions. Such a world would be glorious.
The Kanto Earthquake sequence is rendered in spectacular, animist fashion, rumbling and groaning, as though the earth itself were swallowing you whole. A silent ripple underneath the city explodes into galloping hills, collapsing buildings, burning everything in sight. Entire streets are swallowed whole, rooftops ripple and disintegrate. And as sudden as it begins, the quaking stops. All that is seen are bewildered faces, rubble, smoke and fire. Aftershocks emerge and vanish without warning. These scenes are clearly inspired by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, and no doubt many seats in Japanese theaters were squirming uncomfortably in their seats.
As always, the amount of technical detail in the artwork is astonishing. It is a Ghibli trademark that is unmatched anywhere in the world. One of my favorite scenes involves Jiro newly at his desk, opening his papers, working with his slide rule. His movements are astonishingly smooth, and the detail on his instruments so sharp and detailed, you could actually perform real work. The Wind Rises is filled with such moments, of getting into the marrow of hard work, of showing you the equations and sketches and rivets and wings. This is one of the great movies about the craftsmanship of creating art. I can share that admiration as I battle endless through this very film essay. It's a battle to create something, a struggle, and it's also a process of discovery.
Miyazaki paints with an enormous canvas; there are many wide panning shots and long takes, many wonderful visas of cloud-filled skies and gigantic hangers and dense forests. And throughout it all, the winds blow. Japanese animators have an intimate understanding of nature that simply does not exist here in the West. They understand the nature of wind and water and soil as living things, as persons themselves. It is impossible to inhabit these woods, hills and mountains, and not feel overwhelmed by the sheer beauty. The moments of terror and tragedy make the peaceful moments all the more miraculous. It's as though the beauty of the world is paid with the cost of human suffering.
I can continue this discussion indefinitely. There's just so much to admire, to reflect upon, to talk about. We haven't even come to the German businessman, voiced by the great Warner Herzog in a scene-stealing performance. We haven't mentioned many characters like Jiro's sister and childhood friend. We haven't talked about that magnificent closing song. We have yet to get into the countless number of riffs and allusions to Hayao Miyazaki's entire career.
And, most of all, we haven't talked about the question of Miyazaki's retirement. Nobody wants to believe this master of cinema could retire from directing feature films, just when he has reached a new artistic peak. The Wind Rises is an absolute masterpiece, like Fellini's Amacord and Akira Kurosawa's Madadayo and The Beatles' Abbey Road mashed together. Yes, this is a movie about goodbyes and final messages, of lessons learned, achievements honored, tragedies forgiven. What more is left to be said? What new insights and messages from a 50-year career (a career that, to this day, remains largely unknown to American audiences) have yet to be shared? And so it is best to walk away, to try to live. And the wind cries. Verklempt.