A nation united in reconstruction after a devastating natural disaster provides the backdrop to the true story of an aeronautical engineer blindly pursuing his dreams of flight as his fiancé battles a life threatening disease in “The Wind Rises,” the latest and reportedly final work of master animator and film-maker Hayao Miyazaki. This latest film shows Miyazaki operating at the height of his powers, pushing the animated medium into new narrative and technical territories in a self reflective tale which celebrates humanity’s innate creative impulse whilst exploring the tragic consequences to which its uninhibited pursuit can ultimately lead.
The narrative follows Jiro, an aspiring aeronautical engineer pursuing his dream in inter-war Japan whilst falling for a mysterious young painter from his past. Opening with one of many jaw-droppingly realised sequences of aeronautical adventure that punctuate the film, it immediately becomes apparent that Miyazaki shares the protagonist’s romanticised view of planes as artworks, depicting them alternately as paper planes or as graceful birdlike figures in a dreamworld of blue skies and idyllic grasslands. Throughout the film Jiro struggles to reconcile this fantastical world with the oppressively murky surroundings he is presented with. Miyazaki’s screenplay intertwines the fates of Jiro and Japan, as our protagonist’s blinkered desire to create clashes with Japan’s awakening military ambitions. Meanwhile, dark secrets emerge about Jiro’s beloved Nahoko as Japan hurtles towards war. The film retains a surprisingly ambiguous moral stance towards Jiro’s role in creating these weapons which lends a complexity to the narrative and themes often missing from animated films.
As expected of a Ghibli movie, the hand drawn animation is impeccable, with Miyazaki creating a world in perpetual motion; long grasses wave ceaselessly in the wind, tendrils of smoke are whipped into nothingness by propellers and moths flicker in the evening lights. Miyazaki crafts a world brimming with life, which makes the viscerally rendered sequences of destruction throughout the film even more devastating. Furthermore, Miyazaki pushes the medium by imbuing the animation with a cinematic aesthetic, with lens flares, focus pulls, and depth of field effects allowing the audience to experience the inner life of the characters more intensely whilst simultaneously reinforcing the non fictional aspects of the story.
However, the film is not totally successful. The narrative stumbles along in the opening act and struggles to establish momentum until mid-way through the film, when the tensions between Jiro’s personal and professional lives become clear. With regards to the English voice cast, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s natural charisma ensures Jiro remains likeable even in his most self absorbed moments, but Emily Blunt struggles to bring life to a thankless role as Jiro’s love interest, who essentially serves as a cipher to the film’s themes, whilst the usually dependable Stanley Tucci’s contribution as real life engineer Giovanni Caproni proves a frustrating distraction in some of the film’s most emotional moments.
A nuanced work of lyricism and depth; if “The Wind Rises” proves to be Miyazaki’s final film, it is a fitting swan song of perhaps the most ambitious and accomplished storyteller to ever turn their hand to animation. It is hard to see the truthfulness in the film’s recurrent maxim that artists have only ten years of creativity in them when Miyazaki has been producing works of such insight, beauty and originality for almost three decades.