In many ways, The Wind Rises is unlike any other of Hayao Miyazaki’s film. It looks the same. The characters are easily identified as his work and as always it is sumptuously animated. The subject is what is different. It is neither an adventure movie nor a children’s movie, two categories in which nearly all of his previous films fit. In many ways it is similar to Porco Rosso, another film that doesn’t fit comfortably in either genre. However, The Wind Rises is also about a real person. As highly fictionalizes it might be (and I really don’t know how much that is, as I am not familiar with more than most basic of facts here), Jori Horikoshi was a real person. The fact that it is based in truth makes it significantly different.
The Wind Rises mostly covers Jori’s work on the Zero fighter just before WWII. He struggles with designing the aircraft, having to overcome the superiority of foreign aeronautical technology. He also must weigh his desire to create beautiful art with the knowledge that that art will almost certainly be used for terrible things. While working on the fighter, he falls in love with Naoko, a beautiful young woman with tuberculosis. Even Jiro’s dreams, which play a large part in the film, reflect his conflicted nature. Some are sweet fantasies of meeting up with his hero, Italian airplane designer Caproni, others are nightmares of death from above. Jiro’s romance with Nahoko is truly touching. She knows just how limited her time will be and is determined to be with Jiro anyway. They want to make the most of the short time they have together.
Wind is central to this film. All through the film wind is blowing, whether it blows Jiro’s hat from his head, leading to his first meeting with Nahoko or blowing embers on to books rescued after an earthquake or the winds of change blowing through Japan and the rest of the world. Wind plays a role in nearly every development in this film.
While there are weighty matters are being contemplated, to film is very relaxed and low-key. It meanders from section to section, giving viewers small glimpse that eventually congeal into a cohesive whole. It is at turns joyous and wistful and sad, but always moving. This is aided by just how good looking the animation is, particularly the dream scenes. While the rest of the film is mostly restrained, the dreams allow Miyazaki to use a little more of his familiar flying scenes. Like many of his films, especially Porco Rosso, there is a kind of awe of airplanes and flying machines on display. It is infectious and wondrous.
One can’t help but see a little of Miyazaki himself in Jiro, especially at the end, when he and his hero look back on his dreams with some pride and some sorrow. It is an artist never quite satisfied with his work, but nonetheless proud of his accomplishments. Miyazaki claims to be retired after this film, a claim he has made before, and if so, this is a fine way to end a career. The Wind Rises may not be his best work, but it is a masterpiece anyway.