Hands down the most celebrated living director of animated films (and one of the most highly regarded working filmmakers, period), Hayao Miyazaki’s purportedly final film got its official release in America early in 2014. As disappointing as the news of Miyazaki’s retirement may be, he leaves behind him a career of wonderful achievements within the Studio Ghibli canon, of which ‘The Wind Rises’ is among the very best, which is no manner of faint praise.
The story centers on Jiro Horikoshi, a real-life figure best known as a designer of Japanese fighter planes during World War II. Unable to actually pilot planes due to his weak sight, Jiro channels his enchantment with flight into designing aerial planes for combat. Longtime followers of Miyazaki’s career will probably notice that this subject matter is a pretty big departure from the more fantastical and science-fiction type stories he usually deals with, outside of a few surrealistic dream sequences. Despite this, the film is nonetheless compelling throughout, with or without certain token Ghibli trademarks, of which this film still contains plenty.
Certainly the notion of a World War to the outspoken pacifist Miyazaki is as much of an obscene intrusion into nature as it is to Rousseau or Malick, and yet here WWII remains a structuring absence, with the director rejecting simplistic villainy, as always. But even that hasn’t stopped the film’s native country of Japan from scrutinizing the storyline as being anti-nationalist. But the obvious lack of an agenda doesn’t necessarily mean the finger is being pointed more furiously at one side or another, especially this long after the conflict in question has been over and done with.
Rather than provide a furious critique of the events being depicted, the film gently offers the central conundrum of an inventor who is enough of a visionary to connect the shape of a mackerel bone to the curved wing of his pet project, but not wise enough to realize that his planes will be used to bomb Pearl Harbor. Point being, abandon your preconceptions and politics, and simply enjoy the work of a master filmmaker.
If “The Wind Rises” resembles the traditional Hollywood biopic structure in its decade-spanning storyline and bittersweet tone, it is a singular showcase for the animation Miyazaki developed and perfected at Studio Ghibli. While the drawings scarcely bend the laws of physics, as in the more fanciful visions of films like “My Neighbor Totoro” or “Spirited Away”, their detailed, soft-cell beauty still manages to impress, moreso than the typically favored 3D animation that’s dominating the American film industry now-a-days.
Much like the planes Mr. Horikoshi was designing in the film’s narrative, the film itself is a work of art from a dedicated master of the craft, who has had enough time over his long and already successful career to craft yet another brilliant work to add to his repertoire. With its introspective emphasis on personal loss and the intersection between creative art and commercialized craftsmanship, “The Wind Rises” certainly feels like the final work of a retreating artist, a grand summation of many recurring themes and images. Despite the veteran animator’s announcement of retirement, this Miyazaki aficionado hopes it won’t be his last. The serene yet overflowing sensibility visible in every frame here suggests an artist with a few more masterpieces still left inside him.
(This review was initially published in my college newspaper, but significant portions of it have been edited and reworked, or replaced with blurbs from a review in ‘Reverse Shot’ magazine).