Studio Ghibli presents what may or may not be the last animated vision of acclaimed director Hayao Miyazaki with The Wind Rises. Is the story of the man who designed Japan's Zero fighter plane a worthy achievement for the famed filmmaker, or does it fail to meet expectations? Jeffrey Harris checks in with his official review.
Directed By: Hayao Miyazaki Written By: Hayao Miyazaki Runtime: 126 minutes MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some disturbing images and smoking.
Featuring the Voices of:
Jiro Horikoshi - Joseph Gordon-Levitt Honjo - John Krasinski Nahoko Satomi - Emily Blunt Kurokawa - Martin Short Caproni - Stanley Tucci Hattori - Mandy Patinkin Mr. Satomi - William H. Macy Kayo Horikoshi - Mae Whitman Castorp - Werner Herzog Mrs. Kurokawa - Jennifer Grey Sone - Elijah Wood Jiro’s Mother - Edie Mirman
Honestly, it comes as no surprise when I read reports from Japan suggesting that Hayao Miyazaki will likely go back on his most recent announcement of retiring after finishing his most recent feature, The Wind Rises. Even at 73, Miyazaki is still going strong. But even so, this was the sixth time in his career that Miyazaki announced his “retirement.” It seems that “retirement” is just Miyazaki’s roundabout way of saying, “This was an exhausting process. I’m going to take a break and then get back at it.” This might be awful to say, but at this point, the only way Miyazaki can truly retire from directing animation is when he passes away. It's hard to imagine Miyazaki-sensei doing anything else. And after announcing retirement six times, it’s kind of hard to believe at this point, making Miyazaki the "Boy Who Cried Wolf" of animation. Regardless, Miyazaki’s latest production from Studio Ghibli finally makes its way stateside, courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.
Miyazaki combines many of his previous themes of pacifism and a love of planes and aviation through a fictionalized account of the life of Japanese aeronautics engineer Jiro Horikoshi (Gordon-Levitt), the man who designed the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter plane, most infamously used in Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor. We see Jiro from his youth in Japan, dreaming of planes and idolizing airplane designer Giovanni Caproni (Tucci). After braving through the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, Jiro returns to Tokyo to finish his schooling. Jiro moves on to become an aeronautical engineer for a major company, whose aim is to design bombers and fighter planes for the Japanese military. Jiro works alongside his best friend, Honjo (Krasinski), and under the irritable but ultimately understanding supervisor, Kurokawa (Short).
Through the years, Jiro toils to perfect and improve his design. However,with inferior Japanese materials and engineering, technology isn't able to quite catch up to Jiro’s visions. Eventually, on holiday, Jiro reconnects with a young girl he previously helped after the earthquake, Nahoko (Blunt). The two fall madly in love and soon marry. However, Nahoko’s time is brief due to her serious case of tuberculosis. Despite the brevity of their time together, Nahoko and Jiro resolve to be together and treasure every moment. Unfortunately, while Nahoko’s presence as a muse of sorts improves Jiro’s professional life, Nahoko’s condition rapidly deteriorates.
Credit to Miyazaki and Ghibli, as the artwork and lush visionary worlds are amazing to look at and wondrous. Every shot of this movie looks like it could be a piece of framed art. The landscapes, vistas, as well as the surreal, Terry Gilliam-esque dream imagery on display here are wondrous. Thankfully, Japanese anime and Studio Ghibli are one of the last true bastions of hope for quality traditional, hand-drawn animation. The Wind Rises is no exception.
Miyazaki deals with some very shaky material here, considering it’s a story about a man who designs weapons of war. Throughout the film, there’s an odd sort of disconnect between Jiro, his colleagues, and the work they do. At one point, Jiro’s friend Honjo laments, [that they aren't] “arms merchants, we just want to design airplanes.” Jiro is somewhat confronted by these notions through his dreams. As a child, Jiro dreamed about war and bombings. His spirit guide, Caproni, then compares fighter planes and bombers to that of pyramids. Further along, while on holiday, Jiro meets a German man named Castorp (Herzog), a man who can best be described as, likely a Nazi dissenter or German defector. The two become well acquainted and fast friends, but their association puts Jiro under watch by the Gestapo. After this point, Jiro’s naiveté and disconnect over his profession start to come off as rather immature and unappealing. It is later contradicted by Jiro’s own remorse of designing his planes with weapons and joking about removing them to his design team with a fake grin on his face. This is very difficult subject matter, and I’m just not sure Miyazaki quite cracked it.
The story is deeply emotional, brave, dramatic, and poignant. However, the payoff is somewhat lacking. The movie is almost too subtle for its own good. Miyazaki does provide an interesting snapshot of Japanese society over the course of several decades. On one hand, a sort of disconnect and an almost surface view of the atrocities of the Nazi regime and Japan itself during wartime are somewhat understandable from the viewpoint of someone like Jiro, an earnest, mild-mannered genius who only wants to design beautiful airplanes. The ultimate end is resonant, affecting, and visually amazing, but the story and writing still doesn't quite meet the ambitions of the film visually. Porco Rosso, which I maintain is still Miyazaki’s best singular work, as well as my personal favorite, seemed to deal with similar themes of aviation and anti-war pacifism much more deftly. And most of it came across beautifully in one amazing, well-put together sequence punctuated by the rest of the film.
Disney brought together a group of A-list talent for the English dub of the film. For many years, Disney has done an exceptional job of producing some quality dubs of both Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli’s films. The Wind Rises maintains that stamp of quality. Krasinski is actually quite good as Jiro’s friend and colleague, Honjo, and demonstrates a humorous bluntness throughout the story. Martin Short’s Kurokawa turns out to be quite a well-rounded character, despite early appearances. Herzog’s role as the pragmatic, possibly Nazi dissenter, Castorp, is brief but incredibly memorable. A couple parts of the dub are a little flabby, but those moments are rare.
The soundtrack and score for the movie, composed by Joe Hisaishi, is in itself worthy of an Oscar. The music, like much of the film, is incredibly sad and bittersweet, yet beautiful. It’s underscored by the recurring use of what sounds like an Italian mandolin riff, which works very well throughout the picture. For Hisaishi, who has scored many of Miyazaki’s seminal works, this is without a doubt some of his best and most memorable work to date.
The 411: Even if this is the last film of the great Miyazaki, it's really not a bad note to end on. Miyazaki has again created a beautiful, traditionally animated vision on film, that most modern CG features still can't compete. In some ways, the story was unfulfilling and lacking, but it was still deeply emotional. It doesn't quite surpass what Porco Rosso was able to do with similar theme, but one could also likely debate that Miyazaki's awkward clash of ideals and arguments at work here was the intent. Considering Miyazaki punctuated his most recent "retirement" announcement with the phrase of, "This time, I'm serious," I'm loathe to believe he truly is.