My review of Hayao Miyazaki’s final film, the Wind Rises
Written for Shenzhen Daily, screening in Hong Kong
WHEN legendary Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement earlier this year, his latest film “The Wind Rises” took on a new meaning and received scrutiny as his swan song.
It’s a beautiful, almost flawless film. But the realistic style is a bit of a departure for the director. Unlike the more fantastical films for which he is most famous, such as “Spirited Away,” there are no mythical creatures in “The Wind Rises.” It lacks the environmental messages of “Princess Mononoke” and “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind,” and it’s very much a film geared towards adults, without the childish wonder of “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Kiki’s Delivery Service.”
On its own merits, it is an excellent film. A biopic of early Japanese airplane engineer Jiro Horikoshi, “The Wind Rises” may not always be historically accurate but never fails to make the audience care deeply about the lead character. If it was live-action it would surely be taken seriously by all critics. But as a Miyazaki film, it must be compared to his other masterpieces, and even if it’s not his best, it’s still a quality story with far more heart than the vast majority of animation coming out of Japan or America or anywhere else.
The tale opens within the childhood dreams of the young engineer, and the various dream sequences are among the loveliest animation visuals ever seen — and noticeably without the use of computer-generated effects. Dreams play an important role throughout the story, as Jiro Horikoshi repeatedly goes back to the same mystical land of not-yet-possible flying machines and even meets his idol, Italian engineer Giovanni Caproni. It is left unclear as to whether there is something supernatural going on or if it’s only in his imagination. The greater point is that everyone should embrace their dreams.
The boy soon becomes a man, and on a train ride to his university in Tokyo he experiences the devastating violence of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. The scene is powerful, sometimes beautiful and sometimes terrifying, as the landscape bends and curves into impossible shapes. The sound effects are all done by human voices and it’s very jarring to hear such a unique style rarely heard in film.
Eventually Horikoshi rises to the top of his engineering firm, falls into a tragic love as his wife slowly dies of tuberculosis, and designs planes for the military. The film has courted controversy in certain ways; there is ample smoking, which some critics have said is not appropriate for child viewers. More importantly, others question why Miyazaki has apparently made a film that seems to promote the era of Japanese militarism.
But it’s not that simple. Miyazaki is known to have a pacifist stance and has repeatedly promoted peace and cultural exchange with his Japan’s neighbors. In July, on the topic of the Abe Administration and nationalist politics, he was quoted as saying: “Changing the constitution is completely unthinkable.”
In fact, his entire film expresses a great sense of inner conflict over his nation’s evolving identity. There was a rush for development at the time as the recently opened-up country tried to catch up with the Western powers, by means of advancing their military technology. The engineers in the film constantly take note of this unfortunate state of affairs. Yet Horikoshi’s character is a peaceful man who stands up to bullying and always takes care of the weak.
In one scene, he meets a kind German man who insists that Hitler’s Germany is run by thugs and will “blow up,” and then Japan itself will “blow up.” In another scene, the main character must hide from the secret police as they arbitrarily arrest innocent citizens. Most poignant of all, during one meaningful dream sequence Caproni specifically states: “Airplanes are not tools for war. They are not for making money. Airplanes are beautiful dreams.”
“The Wind Rises” is not a story about a simpler time. Japanese fascism is an inescapable backdrop to the period and the horrors of World War II in the Pacific region are always looming. While the central character’s arc is most important, the setting cannot be forgotten. “The Wind Rises” is ultimately a complex story about tough choices, and about a man who has a dream but must make sacrifices, as he makes compromise after compromise with his ethics, his country and his loving wife.
Miyazaki has said he was inspired to make this film after reading a quote from the real-life Horikoshi: “All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful.”
As for the acting, Hideaki Anno — a much esteemed animator in his own right, mainly noted for the “Evangelion” franchise — voices the lead character. It’s an odd choice. Anno is not particularly known for his voice-acting. But Horikoshi is meant to be an awkward man and stands apart from the people around him, and Anno expresses that well.
Hayao Miyazaki has now retired. His own legacy will live on via Studio Ghibli, which will continue to produce the finest in animated storytelling. Some films will even be directed by Miyazaki’s own son, Gorõ. But Miyazaki himself will never be replaced, and fans shall always miss this master director, who has taken a memorable bow with this final film.
“The Wind Rises” is screening in Hong Kong with Chinese and English subtitles.