Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises has an air of bitter-sweet finality about it in more ways than one. Miyazaki is no stranger to the demands of morality and duty; add the film’s content and context to the mix and you can see why this animated film has had such mixed reception. Whilst not lacking any of Studio Ghibli’s typical charm, as with Graveyard of the Fireflies, The Wind Rises is a more adult affair, with a charged and dangerous subject: the Second World War. Miyazaki’s anime follows the real life character of Jiro Horikoshi and his career as an aeronautical engineer, culminating in the creation of the infamous Zero Fighters for Mitsubishi that were, of course, used in the Pearl Harbour bombings. The story concerns Jiro’s dedication to, and fascination with, building planes (which itself borders on an obsession), and his love for Naoko, a young woman he meets who is dying from tuberculosis.
In terms of its narrative, The Wind Rises isn’t altogether straightforward. It doesn’t announce the gaps in its bio-graphy, and also relies on an extra-textual knowledge of the Second War for a sense of impending tragedy: we all know about the horrors of war, how the planes are destructive military machines and also about Japan’s role in this story. The question is how to simultaneously enchant (the engineering dream of flight) and disenchant (the death and destruction to which it might contribute). Jiro’s actual story is interwoven with dream sequences in which he meets and talks with the famous Italian plane designer Giovanni Caproni, who functions as fellow craftsman-engineer, mentor and, despite their roles as tools of war, an apologist for planes. Significantly, the film is bookended by encounters with Caproni: at the beginning, Caproni gives young Jiro hope that although the latter cannot fly planes due to his myopia, he can create them; at the end, the conversation between Caproni and Jiro functions as a stock-taking device.
The film builds interesting contradictions that are never resolved. As Jiro’s Zero Fighter progresses and becomes less prone to break downs, Naoko becomes more fragile and poorly; the more time he spends at work, the less time he spends with her. Similarly, the sleeker and more efficient the plane becomes as an engineering feat, the more damage it can wreak, posing the question: can the intellectual problems that drive the plane’s creation fly free of its context? The film does not attempt to hide or brush over that question but instead offers an intertwined fate: there is art in the crafting of flying machines just as there is death in aspects of their deployment. Jiro’s bleak acknowledgement of this is uttered over a graveyard of planes. And yet we know Jiro is a kind man; he comes to the aid of a young lad who is bullied and helps a young Naoko and her maid to safety.
The Wind Rises contains some classic Ghibli images and traits, including a fascination with the intricacies of moving mechanical parts and beautiful pastoral landscapes. Some images in the film echo other Ghibli films; the warships in Howl’s Moving Castle with their pulsating parts and flapping wings are not unlike those in The Wind Rises, and it is hard not to be reminded of Porco Rosso by the airborne sea of planes. The hand-rendered drawing is also astonishing at times, for example, the surrounds of young Jiro’s bedroom seen through a mosquito netting which drapes the bed.
Miyazaki’s final directorial offering is an understandably emotional film, and while not an epic in the manner of Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle or Princess Mononoke, it is both grown up and gentle. It remind us of mortality even as it seeks to elevate art and the intellectual pursuit of one’s craft. There is, perhaps, an analogy between the art and craft of mechanical engineering and the kind of hand drawn affair the Studio is famous for producing, and one can see The Wind Rises as a kind of elegy for this kind of world. With the retirement of Hayao Miyazaki, a new chapter for Studio Ghibli must begin.