by Kathie Smith
Master animator Hayao Miyazaki has never shied away from personal projects, with many of his films drawing on autobiographical material or themes selflessly pulled from his own heartstrings. His anxiety about his sick mother as a child forms the emotional roots of My Neighbor Totoro, and his fascination with airplanes, a direct result of his father’s work in the aviation industry, infiltrates nearly every film he has ever made. But it has always been the profound ecological and pacifistic overtones of his movies that have defined Miyazaki as a fearlessly compassionate storyteller. Although these motifs and concerns go hand-in-hand with domestic and global politics, overt soapbox statements has never been his style; he diplomatically allows his work to speak for itself. (It took six years for Miyazaki to publically admit that the reason he was not in attendance to accept his Oscar for Spirited Away in 2003 was because he did not approve of the U.S. government’s so-called War on Terror.)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Producer: Toshio Suzuki
Writers: Hayao Miyazaki
Music: Joe Hisaishi
Cast: (English dub) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Martin Short, Stanley Tucci, Mandy Patinkin, Mae Whitman, Werner Herzog
Premiere: July 20, 2013 – Japan
US Theatrical Release: November 8, 2013
US Distributor: Walt Disney Studios
The Wind Rises, reportedly Miyazaki’s last film, is nothing short of a grand culmination of all his obsessions and sentiments, imbued with his trademark artistry as well as a subtle political assertion that demonstrates caution being thrown to the wind. For those paying attention, this fictional biography of aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi—who designed Japan’s nimble and deadly WWII Zero Fighter airplane—is full of sadness and condemnation over the nationalist fervor that crushed the hopes and dreams of many people in Japan. Inspired by Horikoshi’s proclamation that he just wanted to design beautiful airplanes, Miyazaki uses the innovative engineer’s life as a multifaceted narrative vehicle, paying homage to his father’s trade while also alluding to his own aspirations and disappointments.
The Wind Rises holds back on the fantastic librettos that Miyazaki is so well known for and instead complements the historical biography with the visual chimera of dreams, like the one that opens the film courtesy a young Jiro Horikoshi. In it, Jiro clambers into his imaginary winged contraption and soars with the velocity of a bird above his town only to have a monstrous zeppelin emerge from the clouds and bomb him to the ground. Something of a harbinger of things to come, this dream turned to nightmare also illustrates the bespectacled boy’s dashed hopes of becoming a pilot. But Jiro’s passions are undeterred as he feeds his obsessions with English language aviation journals barrowed from his teacher and the designs of Italian engineer Gianni Caproni—a whimsical persona who becomes Jiro’s voice of encouragement and repeatedly echoes the phrase from French poet Peter Valery, “The wind is rising. We must try to live.”
Plotting a chronological portrait of Jiro’s life, the film briefly depicts his formative years as a youth and a college student before settling on his more emblematic employment with Mitsubishi. A company that catered to the needs of the Japanese military, Mitsubishi was able to woo the Navy into a contract for a carrier-based fighter plane that would become the A6M Zero. Jiro was appointed lead designer on the project, and he seized the opportunity to prove his own intellectual mettle but also to raise Japan’s status in the eyes of the world. Jiro’s altruistic desire to create the lightest, fastest and most maneuverable airplane in the world was ripe for exploitation by Mitsubishi and, to a greater extent, the Japanese Empire that had their eyes set on unmitigated regional domination. At one point in the movie, the secret police come looking for Jiro (more than likely to steal his ingenuity from Mitsubishi) and that forces his superiors to find him a new workspace and different living arrangements to protect their investment. “We’ll protect you as long as you’re useful,” one of them says, with the callousness of that statement passing you right by due to Miyazaki’s light touch.
Jiro courtship to Naoko—a woman he first meets on a train during the Great Kanto earthquake and serendipitously meets again on a respite from work—serves as a buffer to the heavier themes of The Wind Rises. Naoko, battling tuberculosis, agrees to marry Jiro but only after she recovers from her illness. The lingering deviation into romance allows Miyazaki to develop the lead character into more than just a one-dimensional figure, but it also gives him a chance to introduce a German dissenter (voiced by Werner Herzog for the English dub) who is critical of Hitler and predicts that Germany and Japan are on similar roads to destruction.
Clearly uninterested in spoon-feeding a foreign audience, Miyazaki places the historical and political context of the film with great delicacy, refusing to timestamp events that will be more obvious to a domestic crowd. He also makes no attempt to hide the fact that he is projecting his own anti-war ethos onto his lead character. Jiro reiterates optimism in his imaginary conversations with Caproni, confirming to him that the wind is still rising and there is a reason to live. With the successful completion of the Zero fighter, that confidence erodes into what may or may not be a fictional epiphany for Jiro: a realization of what his designs will be used for and that the wind is no longer rising.
The film and its director were thrown into controversy when Miyazaki wrote an editorial criticizing, among other things, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for his plans to amend the sections of Japan’s constitution that preclude it from having an army. The article, which coincided with elections and the release of The Wind Rises in Japan, raised the ire of the right-winged politicians, who called Miyazaki “a traitor.” To make matters more complicated and confusing, various other factions including notable Village Voice critic Inkoo Kang have categorically condemned the movie for soft-pedaling the horrors committed by Japan during the war. Needless to say, agendas are undoubtedly at work.
Miyazaki’s outspoken opposition was followed a couple months later by an announcement that he would retire from filmmaking. He has made similar statements in the past, but even he says this time it’s for real. Whether this is connected to the inflammatory domestic debate is neither here nor there, but the final moments of The Wind Rises, in which Jiro tearfully chokes out a heartbreaking “thank you,” leads one to believe that Miyazaki knew this would be his last. And what a peroration it is—at the age of 72, he has created one of the most gorgeous animations of his long and fruitful career that compromises nothing and encapsulates an honest and enduring affirmation of his convictions. Miyazaki-san, arigatou gozaimasu!