Review by-Jarrett Leahy
Ever since he was a young boy, Jiro had always dreamed of flying, but due to his bad eyesight, he knew that would never be a possibility. Instead, he studied everything he could get his hands on about airplane design, becoming one of Japan’s most gifted young engineering students. Upon graduation, Jiro, who was highly sought after, decided to join Mitsubishi, one of Japan’s most prominent engineering companies. With the autonomy to design and create beautiful and innovative airplanes, Jiro became a renowned airplane designer while bringing his home country to the forefront of cutting edge aerial technology.
When it comes to Japanese animation, there is no bigger filmmaker than the legendary Hayao Mayizaki. For close to forty years, Mayizaki has been creating some of the finest examples of animated storytelling that are praised not only amongst his peers in the animation world, but throughout all of cinema. Admittedly I’m still a bit of a Mayizaki novice myself, for of the ten feature films he’s created since 1979, I’ve only had the opportunity to see two others, My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away. Set largely in the decade leading up to the second World War, The Wind Rises tells the fictional story of Jiro Horikoshi, a character partially based on the famed Japanese aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi, who was in fact the chief designer of many of the aircraft purchased and used by the Japanese military during WWII.
With the complex and delicate nature of some of the film’s subject matter, controversy arose upon the film’s release. Some expressed issues with Mayizaki’s choice to highlight a man who was the main creative force behind so many “killing machines,” while others raised concerns about the film’s glossing over the fact that some of the workers who built Horikoshi’s designs were in fact Chinese and Korean citizens forced into labor by the Imperial Japanese Army. Those concerns are completely understandable, and I wouldn’t dare say those people were wrong for raising them. In fact, I’m glad that they were brought to light. While researching the background story that inspired The Wind Rises, I came across this quotation from Horikoshi’s personal diary on his Wikipedia page that I thought would help better explain where he stood when it came to WWII:
When we awoke on the morning of December 8, 1941, we found ourselves — without any foreknowledge — to be embroiled in war…Since then, the majority of us who had truly understood the awesome industrial strength of the United States never really believed that Japan would win this war. We were convinced that surely our government had in mind some diplomatic measures which would bring the conflict to a halt before the situation became catastrophic for Japan. But now, bereft of any strong government move to seek a diplomatic way out, we are being driven to doom. Japan is being destroyed. I cannot do [anything] other but to blame the military hierarchy and the blind politicians in power for dragging Japan into this hellish cauldron of defeat.-Jiro Horikoshi
With the country’s immense prosperity since WWII, some forget just how poor Japan was during the first half the 20th century. Many of its citizens struggled to survive, let alone thrive. For eager and gifted engineering students, under the guise of bettering their country, to be given the free rein to dream up and create their own innovative ideas, all while getting paid to do so, I can see how moral lines can quickly become blurred. What I will say on the subject is the film does try subtly to distance itself from the military aspect with lines such as: “Airplanes are not tools for war; they are not for making money. Airplanes are beautiful dreams; engineers turn dreams into reality,” and, “We’re not arms merchants; we just want to build good aircraft.” There’s even a scene where Jiro mentions he can make his latest plane design lighter and faster if he were allowed to remove the guns, a statement that only elicited uproarious laughter from his bosses and co-workers.
Moving away from the film’s underlying politics, The Wind Rises yet again demonstrates Miyazaki’s otherworldly talents as an animator. With sweeping aerial landscapes, breathtaking mountain ranges, bustling ports and waterways, Hayao has created an absolute feast for the eyes. One scene that stands above all others is the truly terrifying depiction of what I later discovered was the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Screaming citizens, buildings lifted and tossed, billowing surges of deadly fire and smoke truly left me in awe of Miyazaki’s ability to capture the shear ferocity of such a calamitous and fearsome event.
The Wind Rises is not all doom and gloom. There is a touching and wistful subplot where Jiro meets and falls in love with a delicate, lovely young woman, highlighted by a beautifully enchanting courtship scene at a mountainous resort retreat. Without saying a word and aided by the lovely musical score, a paper airplane, and a few comical blunders, we witness these two kindred spirits fall deeply for one another. While watching it, I felt like I was watching a scene taken right out of a Charlie Chaplin silent classic.
Originally recorded in Japanese, Walt Disney Studios, the U.S. distributor, recruited some of the finest talent including Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, Stanley Tucci, William H. Macy, and Werner Herzog to dub the dialogue in English, which allows the viewer to better consume the visual artistry created by this master storyteller. Through the use of an evocative and haunting soundtrack, Miyazaki has created a fascinating WWII period drama that shows yet again the unlimited possibilities of the animation genre. Despite its initial controversy, The Wind Rises is an exhilarating, magical film experience that arouses a wide range of emotions thanks to its stunning dream sequences, sweeping landscapes, and a heartfelt love story.-JL
Edited by-Michelle Zenor