Chances are that you know Hayao Miyazaki. He’s an internet darling, the director of Spirited Away (2001), Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), Princess Mononoke (1997), My Neighbor Totoro (1988), and many more. Truth be told, as much as I love animation, I am not quite as fanatical about his films as many people that I know; maybe it’s a cultural gap, but the flow of the movies always felt awkward, and his themes border on redundant with some frequency.
I mention all this not to be a daring iconoclast (the disconnect is probably with my lack of familiarity with Japanese culture and not at all with his filmmaking), but because I want to lead in to how impressed I was with his most recent film (and his last before retirement) with a note that I am not reviewing this movie as a Miyazaki fan. When it comes to fandoms, that might make a difference to some; to the rest of you, hopefully my diatribe has not bored you.
The Wind Rises is a special film. one that could only come from a director who has spent decades honing his skills not only as an animator and director, but also as a writer. The plot, which traces the biography of early-20th century aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi, is stripped down to essence, and you can feel Miyazaki take his time to explore the space in Jiro’s life. The animation allows us to transition between Jiro’s mind and reality flawlessly, which highlights the process of his genius. Most importantly, though, Jiro and Miyazaki are clearly kindred spirits: both have a passion for creating, for finding the beauty in every facet of life. As a result, Miyazaki’s patience in developing the story transfers to us; he wants to explore Jiro’s mind, and we want to explore Miyazaki’s.
The psychological nooks and crannies that we get to discover are mesmerizing, to say the least. A minor internal conflict that recurs is that between Jiro’s desire to build beautiful aircrafts and their intended use in the second World War. Miyazaki, an ardent pacifist, takes a step back here to understand and empathize with Jiro’s decision to avoid the politics for the sake of creation. Jiro is a human being, and this conflict cannot preclude his passion. For Miyazaki to look past his pacifism and understand Jiro’s position here impresses me, because for the first time I get the sense that Miyazaki took a step back from his typical themes to maintain the heart of the story.
But this is only one conflict in a movie with several, and reflects another masterful effect of Miyazaki’s deft writing: his humanism. Two of the most well known Japanese directors— perhaps besides Miyazaki—are Akira Kurosawa (Ikiru ), and Yasujirô Ozu (Tokyo Story ); I believe that they have remained so popular in part because of their ability to produce intimate portraits of people without judgement. Their depictions are so honest and empathetic that you get a sense nearly unique to their films: every character—main, secondary, and background—has their own story. Each person in the frame, even if they are only a dot in the scenery, is a human being with a narrative as interesting as everyone else’s. Miyazaki follows in this vein, and as a result he transforms this biography into a film that reflects reality by transcending it. The depth of emotion surpasses even the most well-characterized biopics.
Beyond the story, though, The Wind Rises manages to impress roundly: the framing and shot structures are superb, the pacing is fluid, and the animation captures the atmosphere both in its dreaminess and realism. Animation particularly lends itself to careful shot composition because each image must be built up and cannot be happened upon by pointing a camera at a landscape; Miyazaki is so careful that he can manipulate reality in the frame with no disturbance in the audience’s reception, and thus creates not a movie that happens to be animated, but an animated movie. He reminds you the potential that the medium has for art.
I cannot speak much more on this movie with being even more redundant, but I can say in summation that The Wind Rises is a film that any director would be proud to have listed in their filmography. I find it appropriate that a movie that is almost an ode to the beauty of artistic creation is the last one made by a man renowned for his storytelling. While it may not enter the public consciousness as much as some of his other films, I think that The Wind Rises is the most satisfactory finale someone like Miyazaki could produce, and for that I am grateful to have experienced it.