"Fighting is never justified."
The release of a new film from Japanese animation legend Hayao Miyazaki is always a cause for celebration, but with rumors swirling that his latest film, The Wind Rises, may be his last, anticipation for the film has reached a fever pitch. Loosely based on the life of Jirô Horikoshi, the man who designed many of the aircraft used in Japan's war effort during World War II, the film is as much a meditation on creation and inspiration as it is a straight forward biopic. Could the film live up to the hype surrounding its release and, at the very least, stand alongside the other masterworks this studio puts out on a regular basis? Read on to find out...
As a boy, Jirô dreams of flying. However, his bad eyesight has doomed him to a life on the ground, as pilots must have perfect vision. At school one day, he is given a magazine profile on the legendary Italian aircraft designer Giovanni Caproni, and that night, he shares a dream with Caproni of magnificent flying creations. Caproni tells Jirô that he could design aircrafts, since he cannot fly them, but he also warns the boy that the majority of aircrafts are designed for war. It isn't long before Jirô has come of age and is traveling by train when the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 hits. He crosses paths with two young women, whom he pulls away from danger, and is reunited with an old friend and fellow engineer Honjo.
Jirô and Honjo accept jobs at Mitsubishi, trying to perfect design flaws in their current fleet of aircraft, which are still being made of wood rather than steel. Honjo laments that they are at least twenty years behind Germany in this regard, but Jirô is consumed with how to fix the flaws in the current fleet. Jirô and Honjo are sent to Germany to study their designs, and during his travels, Jirô is reunited Nahoko, one of the young women he saved on the train. The two fall in love, but Nahoko is dying of tuberculosis and cautions Jirô that she may die soon. His love for fixing and designing is soon challenged by his desire to keep Nahoko by his side, and design a radical new single pilot bomber that the Navy has commissioned Mitsubishi to build, and one which may have more nefarious purposes than Jirô intended.
While the film combines certain autobiographical details of the real Horikoshi with those of Tatsuo Hori, the author of the story Miyazaki drew his inspiration from, the character is as pure a creation of Miyazaki's as the film itself. It should go without saying that the film is gorgeously rendered, but it earns every bit of praise that can be lavished upon its visual splendor. Jirô's dream sequences are marvels of mid-air majesty that could well inspire the next generation of young engineers in the audience, and the dialogue and interplay between Jirô and his ersatz father figure Caproni in their "shared dreams" are the soul of the film, particularly in the early going. The heart of the film, however, clearly rests in the romantic but chaste love story that springs up when Jirô and Nahoko meet once again. Once the film shifts its focus to their relationship, everything else takes a back seat, showing that this is the story thread for which Miyazaki had the most affection.
While that's not necessarily a criticism, the film's second hour is a much more somber and slow affair than the first. The first hour of the film is luxuriously paced, with an equal grounding in fantasy and reality, but the film's second hour is almost completely grounded in reality, and may be a shock for some viewers that were enamored with the film's more fantastical first half. The earthquake that happens right around the twenty minute mark, perfect placement for the inciting incident of Act II, is the film's highlight. It is an incredibly powerful scene that works on both a visceral and emotional level, and Miyazaki's use of very human sounding tremors and fire is as effective as anything he's done. To say that everything which follows is a bit of a letdown is not entirely true, but it certainly feels like the film's best scene in retrospect.
As for the "political" implications that a film about the man who designed the fighter planes used by the Japanese in their attack on Pearl Harbor, Miyazaki does all he can to soften their impact. He ends up painting Jirô as almost too much of a saint, so much so that he loses much of his humanity in the film's final act as he becomes the de facto representation of the unintended consequences of war. It divides the character a bit too much, making the love story fall oddly flat as it should be packing the biggest punch. There were no easy answers for Miyazaki in depicting this man, and he attempts to both humanize and lionize him simultaneously, ending up not wholly successful in either regard. One example of this is a third act development concerning secret police that is jettisoned almost as quickly as it is introduced, leaving one to wonder why it was included at all. Thankfully the film's final scene drives home the entire point of the film in a way that only animation can, bringing all story threads together in one five minute sequence that perfectly encapsulates the entire film.
While the verdict is still out on whether or not this is his last film, it leaves one with the distinct feeling that it could very well be. There is a finality to the film's conclusion, and a lot of discussion about creativity having a very defined period of time in which it flourishes and then comes to an end. While it may not be his swan song, it bears all of the hallmarks of one, and feels like a very definite period at the end of a sentence. It could also be read as a bold defiance of such limitations, making it seem as if an innovator like Miyazaki is not about to hang it up just because those from whom he drew inspiration did. In this regard, the film does seem to have it both ways.
It would be virtually impossible to call The Wind Rises the best film that Miyazaki has created because the breadth and depth of his previous work speaks for itself, and making such bold assertions after only one viewing is folly. It is an outstanding film visually, and has all the vitality of youth combined with the wisdom of age, making it of a piece with everything he has done. It will be a letdown for some, craving those epic flights of fancy from the film's first hour as it quiets down and becomes a love story, but those willing to give themselves over to the entire experience will walk away from this film feeling nothing but totally satisfied. To paraphrase a line from Amadeus, "What can one say when one sees such a movie but… Miyazaki!"
GO Rating: 4/5
[Photos via ComingSoon]