“Do you prefer a world with pyramids, or with no pyramids?”
This is a question at the heart of “The Wind Rises.” Do we hide or sacrifice the beauty in the world due to the pain and destruction making it will cause? For his final film, legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki and his animation studio, Studio Ghibli, have decided to favor reality. Building off of a career of wandering princesses, a hotel for wood spirits and a dancing Totoro, Miyazaki could have entered retirement with one last imaginative vision, but instead his swan song dances between the creative and haunted legacy of World War II.
The film starts during Jiro’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) earliest days, where we see his dreams of designing airplanes start to develop (when I say dreams, I mean literal dreams, as Jiro makes the glorious life decision to base his future on a head trip). Jiro becomes a prodigy in aviation, attending the top college in Tokyo, and eventually joining one of Japan’s biggest airplane manufacturers.
This being a Studio Ghibli film, the movie’s plot is a lot more complex than it appears. Set within the backdrop of World War II, the film makes obvious the eventual destruction and death that Jiro’s creations would cause. Instead the film takes a hard turn half way through a focus on the developing love between Jiro and his dying fiancé Nahoko (Emily Blunt).
The works of Studio Ghibli have always been equal parts charming and emotionally harrowing, but most importantly they have almost all been brilliant (except “Tales from Earthsea,” which I guess if you have to make a black mark on your record, might as well make it a black hole). Miyazaki fully explores the screen with beautiful visuals on all forms. Jiro’s world and dreams jump out with Technicolor beauty. The film’s animation is slow, but hides subtle details that make the world pop out more then usual. All of this is demonstration and homage to a man who spent 50 years dedicated to this craft.
Still, the film is not without its flaws, many of which are common among Miyazaki’s previous films. The English voice over does not quite match with the animation, and although the voice actors are ok, they never really deliver on the emotional resonance the script demands. Plus, like all of Miyazaki’s films it really does drag unnecessarily during the middle act.
All of this is easily ignored though, as Jiro is one of the more interesting characters Miyazaki has created. As he is devoted husband, a passionate engineer and a artistic dreamer, it is easy to get lost in Jiro’s journey. His story is made all the better thanks to some great side characters in the form of his boss Kurokawa (Martin Short) and his colleague Honjo (John Krasinski).
But lets talk about the really story behind “The Wind Rises,” which is the criticism from American’s that the film idolizes a man who help commit atrocities (Jiro invented the Zero fighter plane, which was used to lay waste to Pearl Harbor and other kamikaze attacks). It is not until late in the film when World War II is confronted directly, but constant images of violence sewn throughout the film never allow us to forget. The inevitability of Jiro’s actions is at the core of Jiro’s arc, and it is beautiful the way it is handled.
“The Wind Rises” is far from Miyazaki’s best film, but that does not mean it is bad. It is weird that the swan song of this legendary animator is such a down-to-earth film, but for someone who made a career based on the concept of weird, we should not be surprised. It is a beautiful film for a man that has built worlds.
To quote Ambroise-Paul-Toussaint-Jules Valéry (whose work the film was named after) “Le vent se lève! Il faut tenter de vivre.”