Animation Biopic

High Flying Film Review: The Wind Rises

February 21, 2014Ben Mk


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Little Jiro needs to fly

By Ben Mk

Hayao Miyazaki doesn't make children's movies, he makes great movies. Period. Over a career spanning an incredible fifty years, the legendary Japanese filmmaker has made us believe in the friendliness of forest spirits, in witches that deliver mail and in pigs that can fly. But no matter how whimsical their content, his films have always resonated on a level above and beyond typical animated fare. His legions of ardent fans were of course saddened when the auteur announced his exit from the industry in 2013; but Miyazaki couldn't have picked a more fitting final bow than The Wind Rises, a majestic and poignant story of love, loss and the power of dreams.

Unlike My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service or Porco Rosso, The Wind Rises isn't a tale of fantasy. On the contrary, it's very much grounded in reality — being a fictionalized account of the life of Jiro Horikoshi (voiced in the English language version by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), famed aeronautical engineer and designer of the Mitsubishi A5M and A6M fighter aircraft. When we first meet Jiro in the film, he's a young boy, prone to flights of fancy, who dreams of flying a homebuilt plane high above the clouds. He also dreams of Giovanni Caproni (Stanley Tucci), a famous Italian aeronautical engineer whom he's only read about in English aviation magazines — but in his dreams, he and Caproni are on speaking terms. When Jiro is concerned about not being able to become a pilot, on account of his nearsightedness, it's Caproni that spurs his desire to become an engineer, telling him, "Airplanes are beautiful dreams, and engineers turn dreams into reality." And so, the "Japanese boy" (as Caproni calls him) embarks on his quest to fulfill his dream.

Miyazaki traces through ten years of Jiro's life, which also happen to be ten of the harshest years for Japan as a nation. During that time, he and so many others endure the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, and he and his friend, Honjo (John Krasinski), graduate university and begin work at Mitsubishi, designing airplanes for a demanding boss named Kurokawa (Martin Short). While at Mitsubishi, Jiro is afforded opportunities to expand his horizons — even traveling to Germany with Honjo, to learn about aircraft design from renowned engineer Hugo Junkers — but it's his romantic reunion with a girl named Nahoko (Emily Blunt), with whom he had a fateful encounter during the Kanto earthquake, that will leave an everlasting imprint on his life, his work and his heart.

One characteristic of Miyazaki's films that make them so uniquely identifiable is their visual style. And the visual language of The Wind Rises is signature Miyazaki through and through. Gorgeously painted in lush, pastel colors, each frame is deceptively sparse in detail, yet brimming with keen observations of human nature that serve to draw viewers further into the story with each passing moment. The simplicity of the visuals belies the dense thematic layering present in the film, which references a number of literary works. As he did with Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Miyazaki bases the film on his own manga, which in turn borrows elements from author Tatsuo Hori's 1936 novel, The Wind has Risen. The film opens with a quote from French poet and philosopher Paul Valéry's 1920 poem, Le Cimetière marin"The wind is rising. We must try to live." — which also inspired the title of Hori's book. The line is integral to Jiro's story, not just informing his arc but, on a larger scale, that of the people of Japan, as they collectively strive to survive the harsh times during which the film is set.

There's also something to be said of the director's anti-war stance and how it seems to be fundamentally opposed to the subject matter — the story of a man best known for designing Japanese World War II fighter planes. But The Wind Rises doesn't glorify war — rather, Miyazaki thoughtfully contemplates its inherent nature and Jiro's ultimate role in it. When Jiro expresses a deep feeling of sadness and regret over all the planes he designed (and their pilots) that were lost in fiery battle, Caproni's response — that "Planes are cursed dreams, waiting for the sky to swallow them up." — is poetic, especially when juxtaposed with his motivational speech from earlier in the film. Miyazaki counterbalances this darker subtext with the beautiful and textured score by frequent collaborator Joe Hisaishi, and with the lighter tone found in his earlier work, harkening back to it by expertly weaving familiar motifs — the empowerment of flight, the strength and fragility of love, and his own fascination with mechanical workings — into the film's rich narrative tapestry. The culmination of these efforts is a cinematic experience that's as powerfully poignant as it is beautifully uplifting.

The Bottom Line

Though Hayao Miyazaki may have stepped away from the fantasy worlds that his characters usually inhabit, what he's crafted in The Wind Rises is still a wondrous piece of imaginative and exuberant filmmaking. The film is every bit as layered, as emotionally touching and as full of soaring imagery as anything he's ever made. Nothing else needs to be said. Truly, The Wind Rises is a gift to audiences and worthy of being called a masterpiece. [★★★★½]








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