Review: The Wind Rises

The Wind Rises is a masterpiece of light, motion and transition.

For a film centered on pre-World War II plane engineers – who are not pilots themselves – it’s fitting that celebrated Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki has made his most multi-layered film yet. The Wind Rises is more grounded than his fantastical films (Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke) but it most definitely soars.

However, there is indeed fantasy in The Wind Rises: the film is a fantasy realized and a following nightmare endured. The film opens with a fantastic dream sequence. A young boy walks through his quiet village when he hears the hum of a giant black bomber with red insignias hovering overhead. A marvel of construction, made for the purposes of destruction.

The young boy grows up to be an aviation engineer named Jiro Horikoshi (voiced, in the English-language release, by Joseph Gordon-Levitt). As an adult, Jiro continues to have dreams where he’s visited by a famed Italian aero-engineer named Caproni (Stanley Tucci). They speak of their only goal: designing beauty. They are aware that their designs will be commissioned for war, but their shared dreams are peaceful.

Real life in Japan is not as peaceful. Fires erupt from earthquakes. Banks are closing. Technological advances in Japan feel like grains in a sand glass to Jiro and fellow engineer Honjo (John Krasinski). The Germans and Americans are already advancing to metal constructions.

Amidst the world-jockeying for power and regional control there is an evident artistic respect amongst engineers like Jiro, Honjo, Caproni and Germany’s Hugo Junkers. All their models and tests lack the bombs that will later be put in them, and thus, mutual respect without country ideology is due. None of these men fly, but the men that will be placed in their planes later will carry the bombs that haunt Jiro and Caproni’s dreams. These are artists pursuing something innate – the desire to fly – but only able to create such experiments at the behest of the interests of national army and naval academies. When it comes to the inevitable use of their creations, these men have blinders on.

While on retreat, Jiro encounters a German who tells him that Junkers will soon be annihilated for attempting to keep his creations out of the hands of the Nazis. This German is named Castorp. He has very few scenes. His namesake seemingly comes from a novel by Thomas Mann, whose book The Magic Mountain is titled like a Miyazaki film itself. Mann’s Castorp continuously points out the unavoidable: war is the only outcome when industrialization and nationalism collide. Miyazaki’s Castorp is, here, lovingly voiced by Werner Herzog, and animated with an immense hope in his eyes for creativity and love.

Jiro will have a lot of potential guilt to wrestle with later, but The Wind Rises is mostly interested in focus, drive and art.

Miyazaki’s approach is magnificent. The motion from a quick burst of wind over a lake is animated with the intensity of shattered glass. The broken crust from an earthquake not only foreshadows the terrain of a bombed Japanese city, but it also derails Jiro’s train, similar to how investments in warfare derail the struggling Japanese economy.

With the earth in such disarray, it’s only natural to look to the skies.

Miyazaki continually transitions with upward animation: the always bouncing hair of Jiro’s boss, Mr. Kurosawa (Martin Short); the painting upstrokes of Jiro’s sickly bride, Nahoko (Emily Blunt); hats and umbrellas are often pulled into the sky. Even when Jiro sleeps – or winces at missed opportunities – he’s lying on his back, looking upward. Miyazaki is concerned with continual growth. There are very few instances where the animation is pointed downward. One involves a fantastic flashlight-animated SS chase scene in Germany; many other downward looks animate the impending threat of bombs dropping.

Miyazaki did not attend the Academy Awards in person to accept the Best Animated Feature Oscar for Spirited Away. He stated it was because he did not want to accept an award from a country that was “bombing Iraq.” He’s also been very vocal in opposition to Prime Minister Abe’s attempt to revise a constitutional amendment written in 1947 to outlaw war as a means to resolve conflict. That Miyazaki is able to provide such a magnificent artistic portrait of the man who designed what would become the most used Japanese World War II aircraft speaks to the same level of respect that Caproni, Jiro and Junkers show each other as creators, not destroyers.

Caproni tells Jiro in a shared dream that their position as engineers is similar to artists – for only ten years are either really at the top of their craft and making their best work. Caproni bids Jiro to enjoy his ten years. Miyazaki has announced that The Wind Rises will be his final film. It could certainly be argued that Miyazaki has been atop of his creative field for the past 25 years.

The Wind Rises is a different sort of Miyazaki film, however. Although many of his films have been viewed as anti-war or environmentalist at heart, there are no witches, forest gods or talking animals to deliver the message in The Wind Rises. But there certainly is a wizard. It just so happens to be the film’s creator. 

Brian Formo is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel. You can follow him on Twitter at @BrianEmilFormo.