The latest film from the 73-year-old Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki is an ode to flight and a celebration of living with one’s head in the clouds. At the same time, the film, which Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away) says is his last, is an uncharacteristically realistic historical story, set in the years leading up to and during the Second World War. The script is a highly fictionalized biography of Jiro Horikoshi, the aeronautical engineer behind the Zero fighter planes used to attack Pearl Harbor. It also takes its title and some story elements from Japanese author Tatsuo Hori’s sanatorium-set novel of the mid-thirties, The Wind Rises, and is dedicated both to the writer and the engineer.
In Miyazaki’s telling, the story of the engineer is really the story of an artistic quest. The film begins in 1918, when the young Jiro has a dream of the Italian designer Giovanni Caproni (Stanley Tucci), who tells him that “Airplanes are not for making war. Airplanes are beautiful dreams.”
Too near-sighted to be a pilot, Jiro decides to make the beautiful dreams himself. A few years later, the young man (now voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) heads off to Tokyo to study, but en route he gets caught in the Great Kanto earthquake and fire of 1923, where he manages to help a young girl, Nahoko, who will subsequently become the great love of his life. The visually stunning earthquake sequence of the heaving ground and fire-lit sky shows far more destruction than the Second World War which remains off-screen.
Soon after graduation, Jiro and his best friend, Honjo (John Krasinski), begin designing planes for the Mitsubishi company, working under his blustery boss (Martin Short), making aircraft for the Japanese military. The engineers insist they are just creating good machines. There is considerable attention to details more interesting to aeronautic buffs (whose ranks include Miyazaki) than the average viewer: Jiro’s ideas of using fishbone shapes in the plane’s fuselage, or using wings as fuel tanks, and finding a way to make rivets flush, are examples of his endless ingenuity.
At one point, the two men are sent to Germany to study aircraft design, struggling with the German condescension and the Japanese engineers’ sense of national inferiority, but eventually learn metal aircraft design from Germany’s Hugo Junkers. Later, a German tourist at a hotel where Jiro is sent for a break approaches him (the voice is, unmistakably, that of director Werner Herzog) and warns that both Japan and Germany are headed toward destruction.
But by this point, The Wind Rises has become primarily a love story as the adult Nahoko (voiced by Emily Blunt) returns to Jiro’s life, and the story of their wedding and a tragic illness spins out through last half of the film, where the focus is personal survival. The title comes from a Paul Valéry quotation that threads through the film: “The wind is rising! We must try to live!”
While there are dark hints of a totalitarian state (Jiro’s bosses hide him away from the secret police), the focus is almost entirely personal, and the film, like Jiro, exists in a kind of a bubble of aesthetic and romantic denial. The work is more muted than Miyazaki’s more fantastical films, but visually complex and gorgeous, from the rustic mountain scenes to the urban scenes and soaring aerial views.
The limitations are those of Jiro’s narrow perspective as an artist-engineer who tries to stay from the horrors his masterpieces help create.
Having lost everything, including his love, Jiro notes sadly: “Not a single plane came back. That’s what it means to lose a war.”
When Jiro speaks of lost planes, of course, we hear the echo of his Italian mentor, Caproni, that it’s really the beautiful dreams that have been destroyed.