(The Sidearc edition of this post is dedicated to a user and friend, @panamapunk, without whom I don’t know I would have ever been motivated to see this film. It was worth it, and hence he is in part to thank for this review and the experiences that built it.)
There is more to be said about Hayao Miyazaki, co-founder of the prestigious Studio Ghibli, than could ever be put into reviews of all of his movies, let alone of one, and never mind his last. The Wind Rises, a dramatized but elegant biography of aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi, is an artistically gorgeous send-off with some notable writing and pacing issues; despite feeling thematically divided and in some places unpolished, the film for the most part does prove itself worthy of Miyazaki’s name and of a place in his decades-spanning animated canon.
Airplanes are beautiful dreams.
A farm field lies covered in fog, just before the dawn. Amid gorgeous music, a boy climbs on his roof to the bird-shaped plane perched on it, ignites the plane’s engines, and takes off. The sun rises, and the flight that follows is lovely enough to stand alongside the best computer-generated animation. Some scenes do look computer-enhanced, but the hand-drawn animation has enough small gaps to evoke other Ghibli classics such as Castle in the Sky and the truly classic Kiki’s Delivery Service. Townspeople are looking out of their windows to see this brave pilot–who’s being chased by weird-looking bombs that pulse and make noise as they dangle from plane strings. In slow motion, the boy’s plane is destroyed, and he falls to the earth in an amazingly rendered but clearly surreal scene. Studio Ghibli’s past embraces of the supernatural, seen heavily in films such as Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away, understandably are largely ignored here outside of dream sequences.
Young Jiro’s nightmare and his extreme nearsightedness (preventing him from becoming a pilot) do little to discourage his love of aviation and engineering, while a foreign-language aviation journal and an admiration for real-life Italian aircraft designer Giovanni Caproni further motivate the boy to pursue his high-minded dreams. Caproni begins manifesting in Jiro’s dreams, similarly to how Ratatouille’s subconscious-mentor concept worked. There’s really not much to say about these scenes; our young hero’s mentor can appear condescending at times, but ultimately he and his appearances are here for the sake of keeping Jiro and the rather thin story going. On the bright side, the film’s artistic portrayals of its aircraft are absolutely stunning.
Jiro helps a woman save another girl from falling off a steam train, forming just one of his many noble deeds and making him a likable character (for a time) not a moment too soon–a sudden earthquake sends the train and the people on it into disarray, to say nothing of the effects on the nearby cities and towns. Some buildings catch on fire, others are destroyed, and communities become ruins almost instantly. The sound of a baby crying makes one wonder just how dark this film will be.
Regrettably in light of the great tragedies at hand and to come, The Wind Rises doesn’t seem to make much of its soon-to-be-war-torn setting’s immense storytelling potential. Disasters both natural and man-made are shown, complete with what might be some quick dedications for the dead, but moments like these take a backseat to the uneven stories of a few individuals, somewhat like what Persepolis would have been like if main character Marjane’s story were less interesting, since both movies tend to focus increasingly on their main characters almost at the expense of the tumultuous settings that surround them.
Dream with thought and care.
Once Jiro does get a job as an aeronautical engineer, his friend and now coworker Honjo’s personality makes for a remarkable contrast: while the latter’s outlook is realistic but jaded, particularly in regard to Japan’s antiquated approach to technology, Jiro comes across as so unbelievably perfect (multilingual, instantly and totally heroic, way too dramatic with some of his dialogue, and not actually a very interesting individual) that he ceases to be endearing, especially whenever his one major character flaw manifests, which is really jarring. Honjo, despite his near-complete lack of a story, is one of the most genuinely well-rounded characters in the film, as is Jiro’s supervisor Kurokawa, a natural grouch with a latent human side.
The scenes of Jiro sketching and calculating airplane designs appeal greatly to me and would probably maintain the strongest interest from viewers who are comfortable with the basics of trigonometry and physics; some sections of the drama deal primarily with details of aviation physics, so if you don’t understand what “drag” is, or why it and the shapes of airplane wings are so important to how they fly, you might find large portions of the movie boring.
Much of the plot is very straightforward, with one branch detailing the slow but steady progression of Jiro’s engineering career, and another branch telling a very bland love story. The former just keeps getting more interesting as it goes, with Jiro and Honjo eventually visiting Germany to see Hugo Junkers’ own designs; Jiro’s and Honjo’s respective personalities continue to diverge, especially with Honjo showing his own identity of being concerned for Japan’s and Germany’s economic futures.
Jiro gets a romance, but it’s remarkably poorly done; too many details feel telegraphed, right down to the forces of nature themselves seemingly contriving to get this man a girlfriend–which, in fairness, he could probably use, even if to some extent by way of a paper airplane–and to the romantic scenes themselves looking absolutely gorgeous but not really going anywhere, up until this plot branch begins taking itself seriously. In terms of detail, there’s not much to say about the arguably too-simple story beyond that without delving into major spoilers.
These two plot threads do intersect late in the film, with one of its most genuinely powerful moments being the point where the story begins to pick up and stops feeling so saccharine. The diverse and widely conflicting reactions to the circumstances of Jiro’s relationship provide some of the most engrossing character interaction in the whole movie, but that’s frankly not because he or his significant other feel very well developed. She, especially, seems to lack a personality or story outside of her involvement with him.
But can one live on dreams?
Japan as a setting takes on some grim but compelling details even as the movie sometimes tends to gloss over the devastating effects of war and the political and physical machines that fuel it. Meanwhile, background events such as secret arrests and the slow, negative transformation of a society and culture feel deprived of the relevance and emphasis they arguably deserve. This story and
Grave of the Fireflies share a number of aspects of their setting (with From Up on Poppy Hill serving as a sort of generational follow-up to both), but The Wind Rises all too often lacks the thematic seriousness of the former and the romantic majesty of the latter, leaving a film that does a wonderful job with its planes and much else. That being stated, (non-spoiler) the scene at the end where numerous pilots wave respectfully to Jiro is artistically my favorite scene in the whole movie.
All of these elements nevertheless have their moments of greatness, especially toward the end of the film despite its lack of closure–which seems to especially stick out in light of Mr. Miyazaki’s circumstances. Even still, the classic Studio Ghibli production values hold up, with ever more of the amazing art and music that have helped to characterize the brand. The dubbing here is excellent more often than not, with special praise for John Krasinski’s stellar performance as Honjo, regardless of some of Jiro’s dialogue feeling silly. (His wife, Emily Blunt, also provides voice work.) There’s quite a lot of cigarette use, though, which is my guess for why Disney localized this movie under their Touchstone Pictures label: see also Saving Mr. Banks, which narrowly avoids depicting Walt Disney smoking. More notably, one character coughs up blood; there’s some language; a marriage is consummated, but it’s treated tastefully.
Overall I think of this film as it depicts a number of its planes: a gorgeous exterior, with a dubious structure. Tons of good ideas are present, and all of them–even the romance–have their share of successes. A lot of the writing simply lacks charm or focus, however, which under normal circumstances would make me wonder if this story and its subject matter were chosen randomly. BUT.
Studio Ghibli was named [Japanese link] after the Caproni Ca.309 Ghibli (the specific Caproni in this film did not design this plane but founded the company that built it [Italian link]), itself named for the Italian word for the sirocco. Hence, this film does feel at least partially like a thank-you letter and a dedication to the forces behind a long revered studio’s namesake, even if they aren’t the primary subject matter.
“You must live.” It’s a phrase heard throughout the film, and yet it rings out with truth and honesty all the more when everything is said and done, with implications beyond measure: Love your family. Work hard wherever you are. Cherish beauty in a world that doesn’t always hand it to you. Regardless of what else can be or has been said about this film, it definitely means well, these things are well worth appreciating.
Conclusion: Live to rise
The Wind Rises is not a film whose concept particularly endeared me at first glance–why would Hayao Miyazaki, who refused to attend the 75th Academy Awards as an anti-war protest despite Spirited Away’s successes, be so interested in a man who was a designer of war machines? Miyazaki referred to himself as a “bundle of contradictions,” and indeed his film seems to reflect that in itself: the settings, while not always distinctive, are gorgeous; the characters, while not always well developed, are memorable; the premise, while often too insular and small-scale, is compelling and at times thought-provoking. Jiro Horikoshi’s work and its consequences for Japan’s military history are indeed compelling in their own right, however, and if you love aviation, you’ll likely find this film’s treatment of it a delight.
From Kiki’s Delivery Service to Porco Rosso and Castle in the Sky, Studio Ghibli’s depictions of flight have never failed to enchant, and even for viewers who might not find plot lines about the shapes of screws particularly riveting, the film has plenty of payoff scenes showcasing why this technology is so wonderful despite its often violent context. The moments that most gravely juxtapose Jiro’s devotion to his work against the needs of his family, however, are among the story’s best.
Ultimately, no matter how many things I wish the movie had done differently, it is a thing of beauty, and it is at the very least a success; it needs polish, but it deserves appreciation nonetheless. The story’s missteps don’t prevent it from feeling important or cancel out its accomplishments, but even when Studio Ghibli isn’t at its best, it’s still Studio Ghibli, and thanks to the spirited and enduring work of Hayao Miyazaki and many other talented individuals, that is plenty.
Image credits (property of Studio Ghibli et al.)
– Movie poster – source
– Young Jiro – source
– Caproni Ca.60, animated – source
– Caproni Ca.60, real – source
– Earthquake – source (spoilers, but in Finnish)
– Jiro and others working – source
– G-38 bomber – source
– Train – source
– Mitsubishi G1M1 (thanks for info) – source
– Boat – source
This post was originally written and published for my movie review blog, The Wind Rises.