Review: 'The Wind Rises'

“The wind is rising! We must try to live.” – Valéry

Legendary filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki needn’t have formally announced his retirement for it to be abundantly clear that his latest feature would also be his last. While the cinema’s most revered animator confirmed on September 6th that he intends to put down his pencil once and for all, “The Wind Rises” is such a magnificently lucid summation of Miyazaki’s fierce humanism and singular genius that the film itself serves as a formal farewell.

The only Miyazaki film since his debut (1979’s brilliant Lupin III adventure, “The Castle of Cagliostro”) not to prominently feature magic, “The Wind Rises” is the wistful work of a man whose consideration of the past belies an overwhelming concern for the future. A classic three-hankie melodrama folded into a biopic, this heavily fictionalized portrait of renowned airplane engineer Jiro Horikoshi – the man credited with designing the A6M Zero fighter that Japanese forces used to attack Pearl Harbor – ultimately resolves as a bittersweet yet breathtaking reflection on beauty in the face of its inevitable decay.

We first meet Jiro in his dreams. A young boy living in rural Japan at the dawn of the twentieth century, Jiro’s unconscious mind is compelled by visions of building a bird-like flying machine and soaring over his small town as the locals look up with awe. These ecstatic reveries, however, invariably rot into nightmares, invaded by monstrous zeppelins that drop living bombs onto the houses and rice fields below as little Jiro is suspended in his airplane, helpless to stop the destruction.

As Jiro grows older his dreams only become more detailed and expressive, not distracting from his life so much as instructing it. Conveyed via some of the most vividly animated sequences that Miyazaki has ever drawn, Jiro’s dreams are alternately both a refuge and a way forward, a place ruled by wonderland logic where his genius can commune with his ideals. It’s in Jiro’s dreams that he meets the eccentric Italian engineer Caproni, an aeronautical pioneer so possessed by visions of flight that he believes Jiro has somehow wandered into his sleeping mind.

As the prodigiously talented Jiro lands a job at Mitsubishi and quickly becomes one of Japan’s most valuable engineers, Caproni returns to him time and again, a veritable spirit guide whose purpose is to repeatedly incept the young genius with the beauty of his inventions must be appreciated independently from the violence of their ultimate purpose. And while “The Wind Rises” is anchored by the love story that eventually dominates the third act – Jiro is haunted by the memory of a young woman named Naoko, with whom he enjoys a chance encounter on the day of The Great Kanto Earthquake – Miyazaki is most passionately drawn to the quiet tragedy of his hero’s brilliance, a singular artist whose extraordinary works were doomed to be deformed as killing machines.

“The dream of aviation is cursed”, Caproni tells Jiro, flashing viewers to modern horrors that lie far beyond the scope of the film, namely the attacks of September 11th when airplanes were again repurposed as weapons unto themselves, a commercial evolution of the kamikaze suicides for which the Zeros were used towards the end of World War II. Condemned to be a dreamer in the time between the two great conflicts of the twentieth century, Jiro understands that his country is headed towards disaster and that he’s actively contributing to the imminent bloodshed.

Redrawn by Miyazaki as a peaceful man endowed with the almost autistically narrow focus that seems required to realize true greatness, Jiro suffers from a profound but ruminative guilt that’s as sincere as it is completely incapable of deterring his creative drive (it’s worth noting that, as an adult, Jiro is voiced by “Neon Genesis Evangelion” creator Hideaki Anno, whose artistic crises serve to latently broaden the horizons of Miyazaki’s portrait). Effectively, he’s presented to us as a more relatable Oppenheimer – one scene finds him actually removing the guns from a military-funded design in order to lighten the aircraft, allowing us to better appreciate how Jiro’s creative spirit is fundamentally independent from its violence.

Miyazaki certainly seems to admire Jiro, but that’s not to be confused for an absolution. Rather, the filmmaker’s gentle approach to his historical subject is ultimately a human one, the twists of fate Miyazaki invents for his protagonist underscoring how the purest of dreams can be perverted into nightmares – it’s no coincidence that the same wind that invokes the meet-cute between Jiro and Naoko moments later spreads a fire across Tokyo that razes the great city to the ground. At one point, Caproni rhetorically asks a sleeping Jiro if he would prefer a world with pyramids or a world without them. Perhaps a vague allusion to the Korean slave labor that was reportedly exploited to manufacture Jiro’s designs, the heart of Caproni’s implication is that the horrors required to realize beautiful things – as well as the horrors which result from them – must never be enough for us to do away with beautiful things altogether, as such a concession would mean resigning to the worst of our nature.

To that end, it’s most appropriate that the great love of Jiro’s life is short-lived, his creative dilemma dovetailing with the immortal question of whether it’s better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all. The third act of the film finds Jiro retreating to a quiet hillside resort, described by a character he encounters as “a nice play to forget.” It’s there, at the idyllic getaway where Jiro rencounters a tubercular Naoko, and “The Wind Rises” abruptly seems to pivot from an inquiry about the creative process to a florid and deeply Sirk-ian melodrama, Miyazaki indulging in his habit of using cinematic references to locate us in time (see “Porco Rosso”). Doused in Joe Hishashi’s perfect pan-European score, the film refocuses itself as a love story on borrowed time, resolving in a sublime final scene where we fully understand how the purity of Jiro’s brief romance adds dimension to the central crisis of his live.

While initially jarring, Miyazaki’s unapologetic deviations from fact help “The Wind Rises” to transcend the linearity of its expected structure, the film eventually revealing itself to be less of a biopic than it is a devastatingly honest lament for the corruption of beauty, and how invariably pathetic the human response to that loss must be. Miyazaki’s films are often preoccupied with absence, the value of things left behind and how the ghosts of beautiful things are traced onto our memories like the shadows of a nuclear fallout, and “The Wind Rises” looks back as only a culminating work can. His stories aren’t about the things we’ve lost so much as they’re about the act of remembering them, and though “The Wind Rises” doesn’t forgive us for our transgressions, it directs us back to the beautiful ideas from which they first sprang. After a career spent righteously lambasting us for our greed and our increasing role as an ecological cancer, Miyazaki’s final film resonates as both his bleakest and his most inspiringly optimistic. As though No-Face from “Spirited Away” were exploded into a technicolor assessment of our civilization as a whole, “The Wind Rises” is an indelible reminder that the only way we dishonor the things we’ve lost is by forgetting how necessary it was for us to love them.

Hayao Miyazaki is the greatest animator the cinema has ever known, and he leaves us with perhaps the greatest animated film the cinema has ever seen.

SCORE: 9.7 / 10

"The Wind Rises" will receive an Oscar-qualifying run in New York & Los Angeles from November 8th – November 14th. Disney will formally distribute the film in early 2014. Of all Miyazaki's films, it is most imperative that you see this one in Japanese. If Disney's release is an English-language dub, well... that would be tragic.