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 from his colleagues 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 he announced his “retirement.” It seems “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, I think the only way Miyazaki can truly retire from directing animation is when he passes away. Just like Vince McMahon with the WWE, 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 before he moves on to become an aeronautical engineer for a major company whose aim is to design bombers and fighter planes for the Japanese military 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, though with inferior Japanese materials and engineering, technology isn't able to quite catch up yet to his visions. Eventually on holiday he 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 short due to her serious case of tuberculosis. Despite the gravity of how short their time together will be, Nahoko and Jiro resolve to be together and treasure every moment. Unfortunately, it seems while Nahoko’s presence in Jiro’s life improves his work as his muse of sorts, her condition rapidly deteriorates.
Credit to Miyazaki and Ghibli, as the artwork and lush visionary worlds are still 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’s somewhat confronted by these notions through his dreams. As a child he dreamed about war and bombings. His spirit guide Caproni then compares fighter planes and bombers to that of pyramids. Further along, Jiro meets a German man while on holiday 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. It’s after this point that Jiro’s naiveté and disconnect over his profession starts to come off as rather immature and unappealing. It’s later contradicted by his 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. What Miyazaki does provide is an interesting snapshot of Japanese society over the course of several decades. So on one hand, a sort of disconnect and an almost surface view of the atrocities of the Nazi regime and Japan itself during wartime is 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 beautifully came across 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 overall exceptional job of producing some quality dubs of both Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli’s films. The Wind Rises is no exception. Krasinski is actually quite surprisingly good as Jiro’s friend and colleague, Honjo, and demonstrates a humorous bluntness throughout the story. Martin Short’s Kurokawa actually turns out to be quite a well-rounded character despite early appearances. Herzog’s role as the pragmatic, possibly Western/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 worthy of an Oscar itself. The music, like much of the film, is incredibly sad, bittersweet, yet beautiful. It’s underscored by the recurring use of what sounds like an Italian mandolin riff that 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 go out on. Miyazaki has again created a beautiful, traditionally animated vision on film that most modern CG features still can't compete with. The story was in some ways unfulfilling and lacking, but it was still deeply emotional. It doesn't quite surpass what Porco Rosso was able to do with similar themes, 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 loath to believe he truly is.