The Wind Rises
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. 2 hours, 6 minutes. Animation. Opens February 21.
‘An airplane is a dream,” says dashing Giovanni Caproni to bespectacled Jiro Horikoshi, setting out this remarkable animated feature’s central theme. The Japanese boy, who has been studying the famed Italian airplane designer’s writings in English with a dictionary’s help, is on a roof with his sister, staring at the stars; he hopes this will strengthen his nearsighted eyes so he can become a pilot. The muted night sky, streaked with shooting stars his sister can see but he can’t, magically becomes brilliantly glowing day when Caproni appears. As he speaks, looming six-engine planes with primitive bomb racks morph into fantastic passenger airliners. “Planes are not about war, or making money,” he declares. “I am an aeronautical engineer! I don’t even know how to fly!” Young Jiro’s myopic eyes shine with aspiration.
Jiro, of course, designed the A6M Zero, one of the war’s deadliest weapons. And Caproni spent most of his career designing bombers; his forays into passenger planes were disastrous. This final “adult” film from Hayao Miyazaki, 73-year-old master of contemporary animation whose acclaimed “children’s” movies include Princess Mononoke, is a parable that subtly probes the ironies between dreams and reality. Dreamers, after all, can create nightmares. Scientists and engineers formulate technologies that can be used for good or ill, whatever their intentions. Creativity’s consuming drive can subordinate everything, including morality and consequences, to its goals: Doctor Frankenstein, meet Werner von Braun. But even though dreams can carry horrific price tags, what would we be without them?
The Wind Rises naturally showcases Miyazaki’s technical invention, dazzling palette, and shifting perspectives. His depiction of the 1923 Tokyo earthquake, which Jiro experiences as a student, is a typical tour de force: the ground buckles and heaves and cracks; fires light the sky, afar at first, then ever nearer; buildings sway and totter and fracture; people trudging on traditional wooden sandals through daily rounds panic; bits of flaming debris drift down like hypnotic infernal snow. Against the unpredictable landscape, the engaging fictionalized characters reflect how human aspirations, contradictions, and foibles also constantly flex and collide. For Miyazaki, the dream of flight, a recurrent motif in his movies, is the perfect metaphor: imagination battles human nature’s dark sides, which act like gravity’s pull.
Jiro’s dreams, portrayed as meetings with the mustachioed Caproni and interludes with his tuberculosis-doomed sweetheart, power the movie’s dominant lyricism. His eccentric deductions from a mackerel bone about better wing design, and his careful innovations about engineering details like struts demonstrate how open-minded creativity and rigorous work combine to perfect his planes—his overriding focus in life. But larger realities intrude regularly, if elliptically. Teams of oxen pull Japanese wood-and-canvas prototypes to grassy fields for flight trials. When Jiro goes to Nazi Germany on a technology-transfer mission, he sees four-engine metal planes in huge hangars abutting concrete runways and wonders why a poor country like Japan tries to keep up. His friend replies that the military wants to fight the Russians, British, Chinese, and Americans. Jiro blinks: “Then Japan will blow up.” Eventually it does, symbolically: destroyed Zeros stretch to the horizon while a dejected Jiro tells Caproni, “Not one came back.”
Miyazaki is no stranger to controversy. He has been vilified for criticizing Japan’s re-militarization, and didn’t come to the United States to accept an Oscar (for his 2003 movie Spirited Away) because he opposed the bombing of Iraq. Talk about ironies: in Japan, The Wind Rises was ferociously attacked for antithetical reasons by the political left and right, but became a box-office smash. See why for yourself—and even better, bring a kid.
Originally published in the April 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.