The Wind Rises is far from the most whimsical Studio Ghibli film. The legendary animation house has earned a place in the heart of millions the world over thanks in part to its dark subversions of fairytale tropes and atypical focus on female characters. In what he has said to be his final film before retirement (though it seems he may have rescinded for the sixth time), director Hayao Miyazaki has elected to end on a more measured note of reality, for better and for worse.
A fictionalised take on the life of Jiro Horikoshi, Miyazaki wrote the screenplay from a manga he adapted from a short story, The Wind Has Risen by Tatsuo Hori. It charts Jiro’s journey from a young boy dreaming of planes and flight through to his eventual successes and personal struggles. The film has drawn controversy from within Japan, with some questioning why Miyazaki would champion the achievements and life of a man who built machines that ended so many others’.
This seems to be something of a forest-from-the-trees argument; Miyazaki’s portrayal of Jiro is more interested in how easily the beautiful becomes corrupt, how dreams turn to nightmares as soon as you wake up. As a child, Jiro dreams of one day designing a beautiful, bird-like aircraft and throughout his life shares dream space with an Italian designer, Caproni, who encourages and challenges him.
While at university in 1923, Jiro is travelling on a train when the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 hits; in the ensuing panic, he meets a young girl named Naoko and her maid. Her maid is injured and Jiro helps her to safety, embedding himself in Naoko’s mind forever. But the association between her memory of him and destruction proves all too prescient.
When Jiro and Naoko meet by chance many years later, they quickly bond in Ghibli’s typical non-sexual manner. They get engaged, but Naoko now suffers from tuberculosis, and she refuses to marry Jiro until she has recovered. Naoko stays at a sanatorium but is unable to bear being apart from Jiro, so she returns and they marry in an impromptu ceremony.
The final third of the film is so dominated by Jiro and Naoko’s relationship that it slows almost to a standstill. While the situation is touching, Miyazaki never quite manages to reconcile its tone with the rest of the film. While the thematic link of the death of grace is there, it simply isn’t as affecting as it should be.
But Jiro’s travails in designing for the Navy make up the rest of the film, and allows for a realistic portent to pervade the work in a way Miyazaki has never attempted before. The animation of the earthquake and its aftermath is stunning, as is the whole film, naturally. It’s matched by the sound design, which artfully creates an atmosphere of alternate discord and serenity.
Should Miyazaki truly retire on The Wind Rises, it will be an imperfect but appropriate swansong. Despite its unwieldiness and faltered pacing in the second half, it’s a uniquely impressive work from one of cinema’s most visionary figures. Miyazaki’s legacy will always extend far, far beyond any one film, and with his influence allowing for recent Ghibli entries like Arriety and son Goro’s highly underrated From Up on Poppy Hill, the future for the studio is bright.
Laurence Barber - follow Laurence on Twitter at @bortlb.