The Wind Rises, Hayao Miyazaki’s purported final film, is unlike anything he’s done. It’s a quieter effort and less dependent on elements of fantasy. It features a male character as its central protagonist, a rarity for a director renowned for his female characters (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Princess Mononoke). It’s based on historical truths, explicated from the life of Dr. Jiro Horikoshi - the chief engineer behind much of Japan’s World War II fighter planes. Detailing a history that includes the devastating Kantō earthquake of 1923, a decimated and aflame Tokyo, death, and overwhelming loneliness, it’s a film that covers an extensive canvas. Yet each brushstroke that composes every frame of The Wind Rises is of solemn poignancy, of such elegant and refined peace.
Jiro dreams of flight. He cannot be a pilot as his eyesight prohibits it. Reading an American magazine about airplanes, he escapes into his dreams where he encounters the Italian engineer Caproni. Inspired by his designs, Jiro defines his path at an early age: he will be an engineer. The moral quandary of the situation presents itself early, where Jiro’s development as an engineer coincides with a suffering Japan. The people are poor and earthquake after earthquake has left it in a decrepit state. Jiro’s employment is the result of a government that is more concerned with its technological advancements and wartime efforts than the concerns of its people. A wunderkind in every way, Jiro is cognizant of his social positioning and attempts, somewhat futilely, to make amends with the poverty that he sees around him.
The efforts to humanize Jiro, and the difficulty for him to achieve this, gives way to a narrative that details his travels throughout Europe where he learns from the engineers of Germany. These efforts to stimulate his creative capacity broaden his vision but he grows increasingly unaware of his surroundings, narrowing his perception of the world while engraining himself in his work. While he eventually marries, where his commitment is unwavering, his passion remains balanced between matrimony and aviation.
Miyazaki manages to capture a subdued sense of panic, where the creative process functions within the realm of industry. Jiro is portrayed as both equal parts dreamer as well as a sensible intellect, where his dreams serve as inspiration, his sensibility is his drive. The richness of Jiro’s dream sequences provide some of the richest visual experiences of Miyazaki’s oeuvre. There’s a true sense of spectacle associated with these early sequences, particularly when Jiro is only boy learning about aviation. But that spectacle soon gives way to a military industrial complex that, while stimulating Jiro’s creativity, eventually overwhelms his understanding of the social consequence of his work. There’s a sense of defeat associated with Jiro’s great success. Times in solitude, of shortened time with his ailing wife, and of fragments of friendship are the result of his creative facilities used to create weapons of death. “Tokyo will blow itself up” says one of Jiro’s friends early in The Wind Rises - Jiro’s work takes flight, but he remains grounded in a world that does not share his penchant for fantasy.