February 21, 2014 by Matt Spencer
Coming aboard the Hayao Miyazaki train fairly late in his career (the first film of his that I saw was Princess Mononoke), I’ve really enjoyed the imaginative worlds and engrossing stories that he has put forth to date. The Miyazaki that I love is at his best when he’s dealing with fantasy elements and natural/spiritual worlds. It was with this background in mind that I was really hopeful for what is being called his final film, The Wind Rises. While tons of critics everywhere are heaping a huge amount of praise on the film, I found myself feeling a little disheartened after walking out of the theater.
In many respects The Wind Rises is a biopic, and I would even dare to say his most accessible film to date. It follows the journey of Jiro Horikoshi, the Japanese engineer who would go on to design the Mitsubishi A6M Zero — Japan’s deadliest carrier-based fighter plane during World War II. From dreams during his youth and as a result of debilitative eyesight, all Jiro aspires to do is build planes. The journey to do so leads him to school, his job at Mitsubishi, a trip to Germany to study German aeronautics, and to the love of his life, Naoko.
The film plays with a melancholy vibe throughout as Jiro struggles to create the ideal aircraft — one that he has envisioned in his dreams, yet seems impossible to attain despite his best engineering efforts. Adding to the pensive theme of the film is Jiro’s relationship with Naoko. They meet early on and are then separated for a good chunk of the film. When they do reconnect, their relationship weighs on Jiro and adds a wrinkle to his professional life.
For a Miyazaki film, The Wild Rises is fairly straightforward. While a lot of the elements are based on historical events, there are some trademark Miyazaki fantasy flourishes. Throughout the film Jiro has recurring dreams in which he appears with Caproni, a famous Italian aeronautical designer, on a flying airplane. These sequences are always somewhat fanciful as Caproni and Jiro sometimes appear walking or standing on the wings of an airplane as it flies through the air. Serving as a way to analyze his current situation and obstacles, these dreams guide Jiro on a path to his creation.
The Wind Rises has all the trademarks of a Studio Ghibli film: wonderful animation, great characters, funny moments, and an interesting story. Though it has all of those touches, that was never enough for me to be fully engaged by the film. I had heard beforehand that this Miyazaki film was based on historical events, but that didn’t really prepare me for how different it would be. What was missing for me was that wonderment you get from being in an imaginative world with colorful characters, a sense of awe by something you haven’t seen before. None of that was present for me in The Wind Rises. Instead I felt like I was watching a dramatized history lesson. While it was interesting, it just was not as enjoyable.
I have heard that the reason Miyazaki chose to develop this project was because he identifies himself with the main character Jiro. Miyazaki did feel the effects of World War II as he has stated that a memory that will live with him forever was when he fled his burning town after an air raid when he was just four years old. Whatever his motives were, I can’t help but think of the grim picture the film paints if Miyazaki does see his life paralleling that of Jiro. The eventual fallout from Jiro’s creation is a machine that is used by the Japanese military as an instrument of death. And this is what gives me some pause regarding the Jiro/Miyazaki parallel — if this is the case, what is Miyazaki trying to say about the legacy that he leaves behind?
I think you owe it to yourself to see The Wind Rises if you’re into cinema in general, like anime, or are a Hayao Miyazaki fan. If you’re just an average moviegoer looking for something to take the kids to this weekend, this probably is not it. While there’s nothing that I think kids under ten years old would find scary or would be offensive for them to see, I think the bigger issue kids will have is that there is not enough going on for them to hold their attention. With the fantasy aspect gone and no real killer visuals, the movie is a drama that takes the audience on a journey with the main character to build a plane — not the kind of fodder I see little kids really getting into. When you factor in that a majority of the showtimes will be in Japanese with English subtitles, that’s not something kids usually like having to do.
While I wouldn’t call myself a Hayao Miyazaki devotee, I do like many of his previous films and was hopeful for this one. With the shift in direction, in both theme and content, The Wind Rises was a bit of a letdown for me. If this is Miyazaki’s last film, I’m just happy that he got to go out on his own terms with something that was a project dear to his heart. I can always go back and watch his older stuff for the fantastical Miyazaki that I love and will remember him by. The Wind Rises gets 3 out of 5 stars (Okay).