Starring: Emily Blunt, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Stanley Tucci
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
The fact that The Wind Rises is almost certainly Hayao Miyazaki’s last film places a special burden of expectation on it. Even before the credits roll, you’re already a bit quivery, ready for a leave-taking. In some sense it does exactly what you would expect. It rehearses old themes and motifs – illness, the clash between idealism and militarism, funny-looking aeroplanes – one final time, and the mood of nostalgia in Joe Hisaishi’s score (his last score for a Miyazaki film – just think!) is almost palpable. But yet – and this is a real surprise – we also find the veteran director breaking new ground. Because who ever thought he’d have a go at making a biopic?
The film’s protagonist is the aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi, who designed many WWII Japanese fighters, including the “Zero” – think the Japanese equivalent of R.J. Mitchell, inventor of the Spitfire. We follow him from childhood, a boy who longs to be a pilot but suffers from poor eyesight, through his student years and his early unsuccessful prototypes right through to the height of his career just before the outbreak of war. But there are complications, because Miyazaki seems to have morphed this historical personage into a portrait of his own father (who ran a company making parts for the Zero) – most particularly by giving him an ill-fated romance with a girl suffering from TB, as Miyazaki’s mother did.
Unless you happen to be a particular admirer of the real-life Jiro Horikoshi, none of this is likely to trouble you, though. Whatever games it plays with the truth, the film’s portrayal of Japan in the ’20s and ’30s is persuasive. We start off in a landscape of steam launches, locomotives and wooden planes that to us seem enchanting, but to the young Jiro and his friend and fellow designer Honjo are signs of a backward nation decades behind its rivals. At the Mitsubishi plant in Nagoya where Jiro goes to work, oxen are used to haul prototypes onto a tussocky testing field. Surrounded by poverty, the young engineers are uneasily aware that they are being paid handsomely to build planes which the country can ill afford.
Animation is rarely used as a tool for social observation, or to chart the minutiae of changing times, but that’s what Miyazaki and his team do impressively well here. In terms of historical reconstruction, perhaps the highlight of the movie is the sequence where Jiro and Honjo go to to Germany, to the gleaming Junkers plant, and the animators treat us to a loving recreation of the mammoth G.38 transport plane, with its huge wings where passengers could sit and gawp down at the passing landscape – it’s a triumph of accuracy (at least one assumes it is), and a gorgeous moment for plane buffs.
If Junkers is an example of what can be achieved through industrial might, the sheer fancifulness and delight of taking to the air are embodied in the friendly, bowler-hatted figure of the Italian engineer Giovanni Caproni, who appears to Jiro in dreams which are among the most enchanting sequences in The Wind Rises, recapturing the carnivalesque excitement of the early Miyazaki of Laputa and Cagliostro . (According to Wikipedia, the real-life Caproni was responsible for the world’s first multi-fatality aviation disaster, but never mind.) These culminate in an evocation of Caproni’s Ca.60 Noviplano, his monstrous nine-wing flying boat, which looks like something straight out of Porco Rosso. (Miyazaki has such fun with these bits, you can’t help wondering what a Ghibli movie entirely devoted to Caproni would be like.)
One of the most appealing things about The Wind Rises is its emphasis on the role of the imagination in engineering. Sitting at his desk with his slide rule, Jiro takes off into a world of ideas and pure forms, and it’s in these moments, as well as in those dream sequences with Caproni, that the film finds its high spirits. But the pull of reality, the knowledge that he is making planes that will be used in a ruinous war, is there too, and it reminds you of the divisions in earlier films, such as the one between the forest gods and the mining town in Princess Mononoke. Only, unlike Ashitaka in Mononoke, Horikoshi never makes a stand.
Perhaps that’s why The Wind Rises is full, not just of a feeling of life flashing by, but of what is almost a sense of wistful futility. It’s a strange summing up for a director whose career is jam-packed with glittering achievements. But then, perhaps it isn’t meant to be a summing up, but rather the beginning of something new. A biopic, even a highly fictionalized one, is inevitably more episodic and scattered in its effects that the well-wrought fantasies for which Miyazaki is famous, but in its own way The Wind Rises is just as admirable – a fine demonstration of how to tell a subtle, grown-up story in animation.
The Blu-ray comes with a feature where you can look at the original storyboards in comparison to the finished film. There’s also a 1 hour, 27 minute round table discussion with Miyazaki and others. This feels a little awkward initially and it takes a while for the participants to warm up, but eventually some interesting details emerge as the director takes about the real Jiro and his hope that the project would signal a new direction for the studio. He also admits to crying when he saw the finished film – ah, the white wizard of anime is only human after all.