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Non-Review Review: The Wind Rises

Best known in Europe and America for beautiful animated fantasies like Ponyo, Howl’s Moving Castle or Spirited Away, Hayao Miyazaki has opted for something a little bit different with his final – heavily publicised as “farewell” – film. The Wind Rises has touches of fantasy and looks absolutely beautiful, it represents a different sort of animated film. More of a historical drama and romance than an escapist fantasy, The Wind Rises is a thoughtful exploration of Japan in the lead-up to the Second World War.

Focusing on Mitsubishi aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi, the film is a lavish animated period drama about the construction of the infamous Japanese “Zero Fighter” – the A6M Zero. The fighter of choice during the Second World War, The Wind Rises notes that the pilots flying those planes never came back as the film reflects on the social context of Japan’s march towards war, and the characters caught in the middle like an umbrella trapped in a strong wind.

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Unfolding during the twenties and thirties, The Wind Rises follows Jiro Horikoshi from a young boy who dreams of flying. Realising his near-sightedness will prevent him from ever flying a plane, he settles for a life designing and engineering them. With his slide ruler, his pencils, his plans and his dreams, The Wind Rises presents Horikoshi as an artist not too different from Nahoko Satomi, the love of his wife – pictured on various publicity materials atop a scenic hill, drawing on an easel.

The Second World War stalks The Wind Rises like a spectre. The fire resulting from the Great Kantō earthquake is portrayed in terms that evoke nuclear holocaust – an unstopped and unquenchable fire that consumes everything in its path, smoke billowing into the atmosphere. It’s no coincidence that the sinister bombs that haunt Jiro’s dream evoke the design of Fatboy and Little Man, as Jiro designs fighters and his colleague Honjo works on bombers.

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It’s no coincidence that Jiro travel outside of Japan – despite promises that he must head “west” – is primarily limited to Germany. In Germany, the movie steers clear of Nazi iconography, but the comparison is clear. Even before the Nazis have taken power, there’s a clear sense of xenophobia and paranoia – desperation and uncertainty. Even Jiro’s dreams focus on an Italian aviation engineer Giovanni Caproni. Caproni rather famously attempted to convert bombers into passenger aircraft, with horrific results.

If there is a problem with The Wind Rises, it’s a tendency to indulge in romanticism. Caproni and Horikoshi are portrayed as dreamers caught up in events beyond their control – living in a climate of desperation and anger that forces their hand towards designing weapons of war. It is worth noting that the film only lightly touches on Jiro Horikoshi’s pacifism and objection to the inevitable conflict between Japan and the United States. Here, he seems indifferent and fatalistic, rather than opposed.

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However, the movie is so keen to portray the romance of flight that it glosses over the consequences of these decisions. The Wind Rises is an endearingly idealistic film, but it seems to lose sight of history at points. “The aircraft is not a tool for war,” Giovanni Caproni insists in a shared dream. “The aircraft is not a way to make money. The aircraft is a beautiful dream.” It’s a nice sentiment, but one that glosses over the fact that his company spent most of the interwar period designing bombers.

Similarly, while Jiro reflects that none of the pilots flying the Zero Fighter made it home from the war, he glosses over the damage done by his aircraft to other nations in the Pacific – and the way that Horikoshi enabled that, in his own way. The Japanese Occupation of Manchuria is touched upon briefly – as is the ease of self-denial – but it is ultimately glossed over, treated primarily as a shame that Japan has to bear rather than a war crime inflicted on others, like alienating the rest of the world or withdrawing from the League of Nations.

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The Wind Rises never really broadens its perspective to explore the idea that as tragic and as harsh as conditions were for Japan in the twenties and thirties, the perversion of Jiro Morikoshi’s idealism was far from the most pressing concern. Then again, that’s not the point. The Wind Rises frames itself as a historical tragedy about the perversion of innocent idealism. A short scene of Nahoko coughing up blood onto her canvas during a lung embolism is perfectly symbolic. Jiro jokes about how the planes would fly better if the guns were removed. Instead, Honjo remarks that the solution was to remove defensive armour from the fuel tanks.

If you can get past the way that it glosses over real and tangible human suffering in favour of something more abstract, The Wind Rises is a beautiful thoughtful piece of cinema. It offers a glimpse at how invention and resourcefulness are inevitably spurred by military necessity. Jiro Horikoshi’s dream of flight was coopted by the Imperial Japan, but his experience is not unique. German scientist Walter Dornberger had boasted about how the V2 rocket would be the first step towards space; instead, it was a tactical resource. The Wind Rises plays as a sympathetic tribute to those who witnessed the distortion of their dreams.

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While the story itself may be a little problematic, The Wind Rises is an absolutely beautiful piece of cinema. The movie’s dream sequences are absolutely superb, but even the more mundane everyday sequences look stunning. The animation is nothing short of spectacular, with beautiful painted backgrounds blending effortlessly with traditional animation – and just the slightest hint of CGI. Hayao Miyazaki demonstrates how he has become such a beloved film-maker and visionary. The movie is absolutely striking and several of the sequences are nothing short of breathtaking. There isn’t a frame of the movie that isn’t beautiful in some form.

Adapting his own graphic novel, Miyazaki is able to cast Jiro Horikoshi as a complex and multi-faceted protagonist. Brought to life through stunning animation, it’s hard not to empathise with the designer. The Wind Rises might be more grounded in the real world than Miyazaki’s more recent high-profile films, it is fundamentally the story of a dreamer. It plays best in that context, divorced from the commentary on the Second World War or the wider social context. As the story of a man living with compromise in order to realise his dream, The Wind Rises is a moving and engaging piece of work.

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The Wind Rises might not be Hayao Miyazaki’s strongest work. I suspect it will likely be among his most polarising. However, it does remind viewers of just what the director brought to cinema, and why his retirement represents such a loss to the artform.

2 Responses

  1. I did love it even the cheesy stuff.

    • Yep. It is beautifully put together and elegantly told. And I don’t think there’s any malice to it or anything like that. It just seemed a little… near-sighted.

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