“It has feeling, a sense of history, and a sense of placement. It works wonderfully. And it is beautiful.”
by Ken B.
“Le vent se lève! . . . il faut tenter de vivre!” (“The wind is rising! … We must try to live!”)
– Paul Valéry, “Le cemetière marin”
This quote adorns a title card at the start of Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, the apparently final film of the great figure of animation (although, as many have been quick to point out, the Japanese auteur has publicly bounced around the idea of retiring for roughly the past twenty years). This is his David Lean movie – a grand, sweeping historical biopic, set against a backdrop of war, washed in powerful emotions, with breathtaking vistas. It is loosely based on the life of Jiro Horikoshi (1903 – 1982), an aerial engineer who designed many of the planes used by the Japanese during World War II, including the famous Zero fighters. Miyazaki’s screenplay, based on his manga, shows a largely fictionalized Jiro through his life, his family, and his career – the airplanes that were always his passion, and the conflict he faced that the ones he designed were used in acts of war; the enabling vehicles of violence, destruction, and death. Handled with sensitivity, subtlety, and scope, The Wind Rises is a proper farewell for one of Japan’s (and the world’s) famous and renowned animators and storytellers.
Voiced in the English dub by Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an adult, and Zach Callison as a child, Jiro is introduced as a boy growing up in the 1910s, who had always been fascinated in flying. His bad eyesight prevented him from becoming a pilot, so he studies to become an engineer, and build them. Several years later, as an adult, Jiro is on a train during the 1923 Kanto earthquake, and meets a girl named Naoko (Emily Blunt as an adult, Madeleine Rose Yen as a child). During the earthquake, Naoko’s family maid breaks her leg, so Jiro applies emergency first aid, reunites them with the rest of the family, and quickly leaves, as he is late to get to his destination. Naoko’s and Jiro’s paths meet again, in the years just before World War II, when he has begun designing aircrafts for a living and she paints, although also with a potentially fatal illness that has run in her family. They quickly get married, facing together the extent of Jiro’s newest project – the creation of an uncertain invention that will be used in an uncertain future.
There are few directors around today that are able to claim a kind of synonymy with a certain quality of filmmaking with the average moviegoer. Spielberg, Nolan, and Tarantino are examples, but so is Miyazaki. Ask anyone with at least a passing interest in animation or film and more than a few will be able to rattle off titles – Spirited Away. Princess Mononoke. Howl’s Moving Castle. The hand drawn animations. The messages and morals within the story. The vast worlds and creations. And because of this, as Miyazaki has gained more and more of a legacy, the English-language voice casts for his films are often composed of more well known names. Here, for example, is a lead role voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and the rest of the main cast consists of Emily Blunt as Naoko and John Krasinski as Kiro Honjo, represented as one of Hiro’s co-workers. In the supporting cast, William H. Macy, Jennifer Grey, Mandy Patinkin, Martin Short, and Werner Herzog, of all people, as Hans Castorp, a minor but important character who is staunch German critic of Nazism. And while it’s fun to hear famous voices and easier to appreciate the stellar visuals without reading subtitles, if I do revisit The Wind Rises in the future, I will likely watch it with English subtitles in the original Japanese audio, to get a feel for how the film was originally intended.
There’s a difference to The Wind Rises when you compare it to something like Spirited Away. The latter is high fantasy, but the former is more straightforward, a fabricated but historically inclined biopic. Accompanied with an excellent score from Joe Hisaishi, the 126 minute film might feel too long at times, with the seeming need to lose five or ten minutes around the edges (but then, of course, the struggle is real: five to ten minutes less of wonderful animation), but it is still easy and immensely pleasurable to get lost in its universe, with eras passing by and by, the story progressing through time, mixing with real events, and despite its large scale, never losing sight of the emotional core and romance that lies at the center, often providing the material for some of the film’s finest and most effective scenes. If this is truly Miyazaki’s final feature, then he has chosen a great project to conclude his directorial filmography with, one that showcases his talents, his artists’ talents, and the true wonders that can be done with an interesting story told in a manner that allows it to live, to exist on its own.
It’s painful to think about the people that still dismiss animation as kids’ entertainment. Just one look at something like this utterly obliterates any objection from anyone except the most hardened and ignorant of cynics in that respect. Or even worse, the people who call animation a “genre” of cinema, which would be comparable to calling Vincent van Gogh some dead guy who cut off his ear or the Super Bowl a thing where every winter some people throw a funny looking ball at each other – it pigeonholes the actual extent of what in reality exists. Animation is a medium where genres can be applied, just like live action. Filmmakers like Hayao Miyazaki are legitimate artists that just happen to make movies within the animated medium. And while The Wind Rises may not be the best film he has made, it is still ravishing, at once intimate and grand, devastating and uplifting, realistic and fantastical. It has feeling, a sense of history, and a sense of placement. It works wonderfully. And it is beautiful.