Writer/director Hayao Miyazaki’s final feature film is a departure from his body of work with Studio Ghibli. His films are often known for their fantastical settings and characters. In contrast, The Wind Rises is a historical film. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise given that Miyazaki’s last writing credit was for the film adaptation of From Up on Poppy Hill, a film set in ‘60s Japan.
Set in the time leading up to World War II, The Wind Rises chronicles the dreams of Jirô Horikoshi (Hideaki Anno) to experience the joys of flight. While poor eyesight hampers this, he focuses on designing planes in one of a handful of Japanese companies working on developing several planes. But while many of the engineers see this as a miraculous feat of technology, the Japanese military sees it as a necessary means to catch up with other word powers.
While this historical setting means the world is not as strange as Miyazaki’s other films, he’s able to add a sense of wonder through Jirô’s dreams. He often dreams of the planes being designed by the Italian inventor Giovanni Battista Caproni and the two contemplate the wonders of their aspirations as well as the potential downfalls of the military uses of airplanes.
These dreams propose a moral conundrum of how this advance in technology will likely spread more killing and suffering. The film’s fatal weakness is that in the practical moments of Jirô’s work, these moral tensions are nonexistent. He never has to face the horrors of what his inventions will do to the world. Perhaps the point is that he is so disconnected it never becomes a conflict. But given how pointed the dreams are about the impact of the invention of manned flight will have on war-making, it’s an ideal the film builds towards but never fully explores.
The film loses this larger pondering by spending more time following Jirô’s life, a life that is often disconnected from the larger world he is impacting. His experience of the Great Kanto Earthquake is the first time he meets Naoko Satomi (Miori Takimoto), a woman he’ll later fall in love with. The film is far more interested in Jiro’s relationship with Nakoto and his best friend Honjô (Hidetoshi Nishijima) than the larger ideas of the impact of his inventions on war.
Yet the film’s shortcomings are made up for by the always gorgeous animation of Studio Ghibli. The look is the long refined aesthetic of the studio, a more detailed, realistic anime style with rich backdrops and a perpetual fascination with the natural world. The phenomena of flight gives the film a beautiful conceit to explore the thrilling sensations of the expanse and wonder of nature with rolling green fields and gorgeous blue expanses of skies peppered with soft plumes of white clouds. The dream sequences with Giovanni are some of the most striking and rich images of any studio Ghibli film.
Another fascinating aesthetic choice is the use of voices to emulate the sounds of mechanical machines. For instance, the rapid rattle of a plane propeller and the deliberate chugging of a train engine is replaced with human voices emulating the sound. This idea suggests that behind every technological invention is a body of unnoticed voices that went into the creation of machines, voices that often go unnoticed.
As a film that gives voice to those creators and celebrates those that dare to dream big, The Wind Rises inspires as sense of awe and gratitude. However, the celebratory aspect overrides the film’s darker edge; for dreams also include the realm of nightmares. The Wind Rises never finishes its nightmare, but the dream is so wondrous that it remains an astounding work.
© 2014 James Blake Ewing