The Wind Rises by Hayao Miyazaki is the acclaimed animation director’s final film. It is his most personal film, his most audacious; it is also incredibly flawed and has a bit of a moral quandary beneath its gorgeous and sentimental overtones. There has been a lot of talk about the moral implications of the film, which is a traditional western-styled character epic and unlike Miyazaki’s other films, it’s set in the “real” world rather than a fantasy/magic/sci-fi one. The film follows a boy named Jiro (loosely based on Jiro Horokoshi, the designer of the “Zero” WWII Fighter plane) who dreamed of airplanes and flying, and became an engineer to do so. Unfortunately for Jiro, he had that dream during pre-World War II Japan.
While the film is not explicitly about Japan’s march to war, it does indeed factor into the film both contextually and content-wise. The main focus is on Jiro from adolescence to adulthood, the trials he faces with aeronautical engineering and his brief romance and marriage. World War II looms in the background and although constantly appear in Jiro’s thoughts in the film, he seemingly ignores the issues of Japanese Nationalism, WWII, alliance with Germany and above all: Jiro’s hand in creating a weapon for war. Despite this, nowhere is it suggested that filmmaker Miyazaki is mitigating the horrors of WWII that the Japanese military had wrought. By the end of the film it becomes clear that Miyazaki was not merely constructing a colorful biopic – he was making a tragedy. The problem is, Miyazaki can’t commit to that mode of storytelling and we’re left with an often narratively confused and messy film.
Throughout the film, Jiro’s journey towards achieving his dream of constructing a formidable aircraft (the Zero Fighter) is paralleled with his romance. Jiro is a man driven exclusively by his ideals, his dream and goals, but that causes him to have metaphorical “tunnel-vision.” He wants to make the perfect airplane but is all too willing to ignore what the plane will be used for; he wants that romantic “happily ever after” but does not concern himself with his love’s inevitable succumbing to illness. In this regard, the film’s intent is clear and quite different from Miyazaki’s previous films which all are whimsical tales of triumph but it clashes with the filmmaking style Miyazaki can’t help but use. There are overly long scenery shots buzzing cicadas in the background, recurring rubbery and fantastical dream sequences, and an overtly sentimental romantic summer vacation sequence that overstays its welcome. The aforementioned devices that recur in all of Miyazaki films really clash with the narrative. For instance, Miyazaki attempts an Oppenheimer-esque moment of realization for Jiro but it never quite sticks dramatically due to it taking place in one of those rubbery dream sequences. All the more troubling is the abundance of tangents and subplots that diminish the focus of the film. Incidents with the Japanese Secret Police, a brief vacation friendship with a German tourist, and a few scenes that were merely extended recreations of established scenes never add anything of value to the film and detract from the viewing experience. In comparison to his larger body of work, “The Wind Rises” never reaches the level of focus and polish synonymous with Miyazaki.
The merits of the film come from it being a rather apt-metaphor for itself: studio-driven “art.” Miyazaki is speaking to all those who pride themselves as artists, but had the fruits of their labors re-purposed by others and whose pursuits strained their relationships with others. The film clearly wants to comment about cost of the selfish artistic choices and the corrupting nature of the pursuit of perfection. It’s all rather spelled out in the film as the animation medium is not one for subtlety. It’s telling that “The Wind Rises” is the final film of Miyazaki; it’s the final statement from an artist who helped shaped not only the animation industry as we know it today, and it is a very personal one at that. And like the acclaimed filmmaker himself: it has issues.