Flight of the Imagination

The Wind Rises
(Japan, 126 min.)
Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Martin Short, Werner Herzog.
Former Film.com editor David Ehrlich called The Wind Rises “perhaps greatest animated film the cinema has ever seen.” He then proceeded to give the film a rating of 9.7 out of 10. How The Wind Rises serves as the best example of an entire form of filmmaking, yet falls three decimal points short of a perfect ten, however, illustrates the sentimental character of this admirable but undeniably flawed film.

It’s been said that The Wind Rises is the final film from acclaimed director Hayao Miyazaki. If The Wind Rises is indeed the last film that cinephiles will ever see from the director of 2001’s Oscar winner Spirited Away and other acclaimed hits such as Princess Mononoke (1997) and Ponyo (2008), just to name a few, then it’s a bittersweet finale to a filmmaker that has made a great mark on world cinema. The Wind Rises is bittersweet, though, for it’s both an impeccably poetic film and a deeply problematic one. Saying goodbye to a favourite filmmaker might lead some film buffs to look the other way, but the film might have been received otherwise if Mr. Miyazaki had another film in the works.

The Wind Rises is a loosely biographical tale of Jirô Horikoshi, a young man who becomes a star aeronautical engineer after his poor eyesight thwarts his dream of becoming a pilot. The Wind Rises is truthfully a poetic tale of shattered dreams, for Jirô goes on to design cutting-edge planes for Mitsubishi, which are flown once and touch ground only to make a kamikaze landing at Pearl Harbour. Jirô sees an airplane as a thing of beauty and Miyazaki’s tale laments how human nature seems to corrupt everything it touches in the name of power and greed.

One could just as easily take issue, though, with a film that romanticizes the life of an engineer whose final product took countless lives. The gunsmith might not deliver the killshot himself, but he knows full well that he makes something that kills people. A semi-comical sequence, for example, sees Jirô derided by his peers when he suggests that the planes will fly better if they lose the burden of guns, but he continues to throw himself into the work. His focus and determination to make a great plane become more pronounced as it becomes more obvious that his efforts serve a military purpose, yet The Wind Rises lets Jirô off the hook for clinging to his fantasies and his naïveté in the face of obvious corruption. The Wind Rises consistently reiterates Jirô’s belief that he is building a thing of beauty and not a weapon. Dream sequences with an Italian engineer illustrate Jirô’s love for planes as a flight of the imagination, but The Wind Rises overlooks Jirô’s complicity in the war machine in favour of accentuating the elegiac element of his faded dreams.

Jirô’s story, while wildly problematic, also happens to be a beautiful, poignant tale that Miyazaki conveys in tangible metaphors and poetic references. The Wind Rises makes ample reference to Pierre Valéry’s verse “Le vent se lève…” which appears as an epigraph at the beginning of the film, as countless characters quote the line whenever the wind flutters through the trees, rustles hats, and carries Jirô’s planes to freedom. (It’s a bit repetitive.) Jirô hears the poem from a young girl named Nahoko he meets on a train. She quotes the line after catching his hat from the wind, and it becomes a mantra for their tragic relationship. (He catches her parasol; she catches his paper planes, etc.) Their relationship fuels much of the latter half of the film when Jirô is in the midst of realizing his aeronautical dreams and it underscores the film’s wisely reflective sense of loss.

Jirô and Nahoko are voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Emily Blunt as the adult versions of the characters, but the dubbed star power doesn’t work in the service of Miyazaki’s script. A stiff cast of all-stars makes The Wind Rises an awkward affair and, at times, an unintentionally funny one, since the voices of the characters aren’t nearly as animated as the film itself. It’s impossible to appreciate The Wind Rises to its fullest—or to connect with it emotionally—when it has a dub job this atrocious. (No theatres in town are screening the film in its original form.) What could be a swan song for Japan’s great animator plays like self-parody, although the appearance of Werner Herzog as a prophetic German traveller is an inspired (if distracting) bit of casting.

Why The Wind Rises had to be dubbed for its North American release is unfortunate, since Miyazaki’s film hardly caters to children, nor does it present much chance that young viewers will appreciate it. The Wind Rises truly has the air of a wise man reflecting upon the years that have come before him, and it has the artful expression of a creative talent using his craft to meditate upon the world he could soon be leaving. The beautiful hand drawn animation of The Wind Rises serves the nostalgia perfectly, as the simple characters bear a refreshing resemblance to real-world counterparts, which seems rare in animation nowadays when characters are either cartoonish Croods or dead-eyed humanoids from The Polar Express. Jirô, Nahoko, and company have just the slightest hint of storybook/manga charm to serve the allegorical fluttering of the film. The painterly landscapes and the immaculate attention to detail, likewise, are stunning enough to let one call the animation of The Wind Rises as some of the finest work the art form has ever seen. The film overall, however, isn’t quite as strong a breeze.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

The Wind Rises is currently screening in Ottawa at Landmark Kanata and Cineplex Silvercity Gloucester.

What did you think of The Wind Rises?