I make it a practice not to review films by Hiyao Miyazaki, because it’s like telling people bacon tastes really, really good, but The Wind Rises is the retiring master’s last feature film, and it’s thought-provoking in a way unlike anything else he’s ever done.
Even if a Miyazaki film isn’t specifically about flying, you can still expect flight to be central to the story in some fashion. Nausicaa pilots a hang glider. Kiki flies a broom. Chihiro rides a flying dragon. Howl transforms into a giant bird. Porco Rosso is a pig—and a fighter pilot.
Those stories are all fantasies, but The Wind Rises is about a very real dream of flight, and a real person who devoted his life to that dream.
Jiro Horikoshi is a brilliant young man marinated in visions of flying. His nearsightedness makes it impossible for him to become a pilot, but he buries himself in aeronautical journals—and learns foreign languages so he can read them cover-to-cover. The shining blue skies of his dreams, where we first meet him, are filled with soaring aircraft. One of his heroes, an Italian aircraft designer named Caproni, appears in the dreams and takes Jiro aboard his wonderful flying machines, sharing his vision of a future where anyone can hop onto an airplane and be whisked around the world in a few hours.
“The wind is rising, and you must live.”
The Wind Rises vividly illustrates this eternal dilemma of the creative mind, and shows us what it means to be driven by a cursed dream. The same ideas can be used to harm or heal. Technology can save lives or take them. Today’s transport is tomorrow’s bomber. Might it be better for Jiro to abandon his life’s work so it can’t be perverted for destruction? In another dream, Caproni asks him if he’d rather live in a world with pyramids, or without them, and Jiro decides he’d rather embrace a future where the creation of wondrous things is possible, even as he acknowledges they might require a terrible price.
Jiro fulfills his boyhood aspirations, becomes an engineer, lands a job at an aircraft factory, and struggles through a series of imperfect prototypes, eventually designing what will become the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, arguably the finest fighter aircraft on either side of World War II, a masterwork of innovative structural and material design, incredibly lightweight, fast, and agile. Before long, his terrifying premonitions are realized: Jiro’s beautiful, masterful creations are taken by the Japanese Empire and used as brutal engines of aggressive war, eventually overcome by new Allied aircraft with bigger motors and overwhelming firepower.
Is it his fault? Miyazaki never definitively answers that question, but he portrays Jiro as a kind, heroic young man who only wants to create beautiful things. Jiro is discouraged and saddened by the path his nation is taking, but he shrugs his shoulders and presses on, unlike his German counterpart, Hugo Junkers, who refuses to cooperate with the Nazi regime and is put under house arrest.
We’re left to wonder, along with Jiro, if his life and talent were squandered. Jiro’s physical nearsightedness is a metaphor for his difficulty engaging with the world around him. He sees most clearly in his dreams, and they preoccupy his waking life. He’s not oblivious—Jiro remarks early on that Japan is setting a course for disaster, but he feels helpless to intervene in any meaningful way. All he can do is keep living his life and building his airplanes. People will fly in them, and their survival will depend on Jiro’s skill.
Jiro finds love, but like his airplanes, it’s an ephemeral dream fated to shine brilliantly and all too briefly. He pours his soul into each moment with the woman he loves, nonetheless. Is it worth the pain? Once again, Jiro says, “Yes.”
This is a beautiful motion picture. We may not see this level of artistry again in hand-drawn animated film anytime soon. It’s filled with sweeping panoramas, incredible detail in both foreground and background, fluid motion, and a dizzying world of flying dreams. We see the genius of Jiro’s engineering mind as aircraft wing surfaces peel away to reveal detailed cross-sections with parts that stress, and fail, and are redesigned on-the-fly within his imagination—lighter, stronger, more efficient.
Critics have accused Miyazaki of glorifying war in this film, of muting its true horror, of glossing over the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor (and Jiro’s role in making it possible). Other critics claim he isn’t patriotic enough and paints Japan in an unfavorable light. I’ve found that if you’re making critics on opposite ends of an argument uncomfortable, you’ve probably struck a good balance in your storytelling. I left the theater feeling that I’d witnessed something both sad and inspiring, evidence in word and image that war is ultimately a titanic, tragic waste, but also a reminder that selflessness and nobility can be found in people on both sides of any conflict.
Jiro Horikoshi dreamed of flying. It was a dream worth living, and The Wind Rises is a movie worth seeing.
Teens and up. There’s nothing objectionable in this movie beyond some harrowing scenes of natural disaster and the aftermath of war, and some period-appropriate smoking, but it moves at a leisurely pace. Younger children (or adults looking for an action-packed movie night) may get fidgety.