Reasonable people can disagree about whether Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement from directing feature films will stick, but I think it is impossible to walk away from The Wind Rises without a lasting impression that it was created and directed as though it were this auteur’s final project. This film of exquisite beauty is ostensibly a biopic about the engineer Jiro Horikoshi, but its truest identity is that of a tribute to the creative mind and a final word on the passions and beliefs that pervade his body of work. Any adult fan of the man and his craft will find much to enjoy and ponder here.
This is a movie fixated on the inventor’s passion. The tone of the entire story is set from the start when we are introduced to a youthful Jiro through the first of several dreams where he interacts with Italian engineer and aircraft designer Giovanni Caproni. Jiro’s imaginary mentor encourages him to embrace his passion for airplanes by designing them, since Jiro’s near-sightedness won’t allow him to fly them. It is in these recurring scenes with Caproni where Miyazaki’s familiar love for aviation manifests most clearly: every time Jiro receives words of encouragement, we are treated to cheerful, vibrant scenes where Jiro witnesses Caproni’s ideas put into action. In these moments, Miyazaki’s passion for flight is made manifest in ways indistinguishable from such films as Porco Rosso and Castle in the Sky. But these joyous forays into fantasy are fleeting, inevitably giving way to foreboding visions of hordes of warplanes crowding out the sky above right before Jiro comes back to reality. Such is the nature of the entire narrative of The Wind Rises, where the viewer is repeatedly exposed to the pure idealism of a creator’s passion only to be shown the uncomfortable tension between that and reality. Jiro grows into adulthood and proves his genius as an engineer at Mitsubishi in the course of the 1920’s and 30’s, a time where Japanese aviation is far behind what developed nations have and progress is dependent on military funding. To chase his dream is to build weapons, and even Jiro’s dream world is not immune from this stark reality. In Jiro’s boyhood dream, Caproni raves on about what glorious things planes are, extolling innovation for its own sake and insisting that planes aren’t meant to be weapons. He resembles a walking and talking mirror of Jiro’s enthusiasm. In adulthood, he’s somberly acknowledging that the airplane is “cursed” for use in warfare and that Jiro’s prodigious talent is being all spent on weapons.
Let’s grab the elephant in the room by the tusks. It is fair to say The Wind Rises has caught substantial attention for two major reasons: its present status as Miyazaki’s final work and the choice of its subject matter. Jiro Horikoshi was not just a brilliant engineer but the designer of Japan’s Zero fighter plane, which proved devastatingly effective in the early days of World War II. Whereas many have praised the film for its sublime dramatization of Horikoshi’s life, a few have also accused it of being a willful whitewashing of history or even a kind of celebration of militarism, which is quite a bold accusation to make against a man with such a clear record to the contrary in his work and who once expressed a desire to “… take back the Zero fighter from the hands of the military technology nuts and military fantasy novels.” As to that, critical voices would do well to take into account that Miyazaki himself has been widely quoted as once thinking the same of the concept himself. “My wife and my staff would ask me, ‘Why make a story about a man who made weapons of war?’ And I thought they were right. But one day, I heard that Horikoshi had once murmured, ‘All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful.’ And then I knew I’d found my subject.” To wit, the film opens with a line from Paul Valéry’s poem The Graveyard by the Sea: “The Wind is rising!…We must try to live!”, while time and again the question of “Is the wind rising?” is used as a greeting between Caproni and Jiro and an affirmation of Jiro’s dominant drive to create. In one very telling dream scene, Caproni addresses Jiro’s situation by asking him his opinion about the great pyramids of Egypt, which are marvels of engineering and the product of slave labor. Yet despite that tarnished legacy, Caproni muses that he prefers a world where such marvels exist to the alternative. It is that conviction that drives Jiro’s motivation in everything he does as he puts his heart and soul into the quality of his work, since it is the only thing about his work that he can control.
Another major aspect to the film is Jiro’s budding romantic relationship with Nahoko, a young woman he meets again by chance years after helping her during the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake – an event the film marvelously portrays with evocative and frightening imagery. More than a few have compared Nahoko to Miyazaki’s young, proactive heroines, and find both her and their underdeveloped relationship disappointing. It’s certainly true Nahoko doesn’t fit the standard for Miyazaki’s leading ladies, but I could not disagree more about her importance. The simple joy and innocence of their courtship during a vacation in the countryside is a sweet thing to witness, while it is really only with Nahoko that Jiro exhibits anything like the raw, unfiltered passion that we see from his youth. If Jiro’s career were all we are left with, it would be easy to view Jiro as a detached, emotionless and thoroughly unlikable workaholic. The bond with Nahoko humanizes the man and rescues him and the film from this assessment, for she is the second great joy in his life. Moreover, tragically, that joy is also sharply tempered by harsh reality: Nahoko is afflicted with tuberculosis and the pair understand that their time together is liable to be fleeting. However, this knowledge doesn’t keep them from committing to marriage with no hesitation. Their union and Jiro’s ambition are two sides of the came coin: both are realized through a conscious determination to venture living to the fullest, a belief that the suffering that may come from that is preferable to regrets of the dream unpursued. A counter to this is that even as Nahoko’s health fails Jiro continues to prioritize his work; while Jiro is not necessarily blameless in this, Nahoko’s side of the relationship cannot be overlooked. Nahoko is a loving partner who we see urging Jiro on and sharing in the joy of his passion, not a neglected and despondent victim.
Is it an original sin that Miyazaki opts to tell the story of an inventor without so much as a single overt depiction of what his invention was used for? It’s a reasonable concern, but one that I believe ultimately misses the point. Miyazaki’s purpose in The Wind Rises is not to pound home a message, but to portray his perception of this man’s story and leave it to the viewer to contemplate his labors and their discontents. War is nowhere to be seen, but its pernicious influence certainly pervades everything that happens in the film. Japan’s ultimately self-destructive course is hardly excused, much less celebrated, when we see Jiro lamenting in his final meeting with Caproni that “a graveyard” is what he has to show for his troubles near the end, with the knowledge that he followed his dreams as his sole bittersweet comfort. With this in mind my thoughts stray not to excuses for the inexcusable, but the essence of Gainax’s sci-fi film Royal Space Force, where a rocket launch puts the first man in space, notwithstanding cynical greater forces nearly twisting it into an incitement to war. Having made it into orbit, its protagonist Shirotsugh broadcasts to the surface, lamenting mankind’s history of strife and what it may do in the new frontier. His ensuing prayer speaks what The Wind Rises wistfully expresses without words in its final moments: a hope that better days shall come where the world will do right by its dreamers.
This review was based on the Japanese, English-subtitled version of The Wind Rises.