The empire of Studio Ghibli is about to lose its foremost patriarch, the legendary filmmaker Hayao Mayazaki – or so he says. His latest film, The Wind Rises, is meant to be his final work before retirement. This is a threat that Mayazaki has posed to his fans several times, but this time it’s been taken with the utmost seriousness. So what to make of his last film? It certainly feels like the most adult, the least whimsical. Like all of his films, it feels intentionally paced and requires patience to truly absorb, but it’s charms feel muted and suppressed. It expects its audience to be on a different reading level than those of say My Neighbor Totoro or Howl’s Moving Castle. Mayazaki’s final film is less of a cathartic goodbye but a quiet walk behind the curtain, and while his usual beautiful visual style is well intact, The Wind Rises is not equipped with quite the same engrossing story from his best work. The Wind Rises peddles on as a fictional biography of one of Japan’s most polarizing figures, Jiro Horikoshi, the man who designed the deadly Zero airplane’s the Empire of Japan used during World War II.
Mayazaki’s screenplay is based on his own manga comic covering the same subject. The Wind Rises was released in his native Japan last summer where it went on to become the highest grossing movie in Japan in 2013. For the US audiences, the film is stuffed with famous movie stars (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, John Krasinski) doing voice over work – this is not uncommon for the Studio Ghibli movies, with Totoro they actually re-did the English dubbing in the early 00’s to include the Fanning sisters. This time around, Gordon-Levitt is called upon to do the English dubbing for the character of Horikoshi. Gordon-Levitt’s voice work is somewhere in between unenthusiastic and hungover, and I’ll be willing to admit that his sub-par job could have cost me the chance to enjoy a film that many are calling majestic and timeless. But then I would also be ignoring the fact that I’ve never really been a huge fan of Mayazaki’s to begin with, with Totoro and Princess Mononoke being the only films that I’ve ever really connected with. Even Spirited Away, considered by many to be his masterpiece, felt trodden and verbose to me. The Wind Rises felt like a little bit of the same.
At the film’s open, Jiro is a young boy who has expansive, complicated dreams about aeronautics, some of them involving Giovanni Caproni, the famed Italian engineer and aircraft designer, who designed the best of the Italian war planes during World War I. In his dreams, Caproni explains to Jiro the majesty of crafting beautiful planes but also warns that it is the fate of aeronautical engineers to have their wonderful work then used as weapons of destruction for the armies and the war machine. Jiro wakes up convinced of what he wants to do with his life: he wants to design the best planes that Japan has ever seen. He goes to school and studies engineering, along with his friend Honjo, and excels greatly. He’s traveling on a full train when he meets a young girl named Naoko who recites French poetry. Their train ride is stunted disastrously by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, and Naoko’s maid breaks her leg. Jiro carries the maid on his back and gets her and Naoko back to the safe comforts of their home. When Jiro tries to find the family days later, he finds their house has been burnt to the ground in the aftermath of the earthquake.
Jiro’s first job out of school is with a airplane manufacturing company with Honjo, specifically in the fighter plane division. The branch is ruled by a short, loud-mouthed manager named Kurokawa who is rough on all newcomers but is quick to realize the value behind Jiro’s expert mind. Jiro and Honjo are frustrated with the cost-cutting prudishness of Japan, and when their initial design fails trying to reach stop speeds, the military ends up accepting a design from a rival designer. Jiro and Honjo travel to Germany to visit the Junkers air manufacturer and are even able to meet the famous plane designer Hugo Junkers and witness firsthand the sophistication of German engineering. Jiro obtains a production license from Junkers, but his return to Japan leads to more disappointments, including a plane that falls apart in mid-air during a Navy-sponsored fighter pilot competition. Jiro heads to a summer resort where he runs into Naoko again, but this time she is a grown woman. She is ill with tuberculosis but shares Jiro’s love the beauty of aerial design and they become engaged despite her failing health.
The doomed love between Naoko and Jiro takes up a solid percentage of Wind Rises‘s second half. It’s not uninteresting, but it’s not dynamic enough to fill up such a large portion of the film either. It should not be shoe-horned into the film’s final forty-five minutes. If anything, it’s a much more engrossing story to tell than the one that The Wind Rises ultimately ends up committing itself too. The film’s problematic politics aside, it’s story seems entrapped by its reliance on history (I know this is supposed to be a “fictional retelling” but it’s still beholden to this very real man), not allowing Mayazaki to truly embrace his wonderful, imaginative creativity. There are glimpses of it: the film’s recreation of the devastating earthquake feels like a classically captivating Mayazaki sequence, and it’s use of human voices for sound effects – propellers whirling, engines bubbling – adds a terrific nuance to the film’s attention to engineering detail. This is film looks incredible, like all of his films, but the experience was pretty empty. The parallel between Jiro’s love for planes and his love for Naoko felt rushed and uneven. I wish I hadn’t seen the dubbed version, and had I not, maybe I would have been as taken as most audiences have been. As it stands, this feels like a pretty meek goodbye for the master animator.
Written and Directed by Hayao Miyazaki