'The Wind Rises' is a difficult and thoughtful rumination on creation in the name of destruction
The Wind Rises Touchstone Pictures
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Screenplay: Hayao Miyazaki, based on the manga by Miyazaki
Starring: The voices of Hideaki Anno, Miori Takimoto, Nomura Mansai, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Masahiko Nishimura and Morio Kazama
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 6 minutes
February 28, 2014
(out of four)
As I watched The Wind Rises, it hit me that only a filmmaker like Hayao Miyazaki could ever have explored all the facets of this particular story - or, for that matter, could have told this story at all. Of course, I'm biased by the obvious fact that I've only ever seen - and likely only ever will see - the Miyazaki version of this story, so it's the only way I can envision it.
But what struck me was its fluid sense of reality, perspective and the subconscious, and how it could really only be expressed by someone so well-versed in the surreal and dreamlike. Miyazaki has made a career of exploring dreamscapes, born as much out of his characters' imaginations as his own, and his brand of animated storytelling proves to be an unusually immaculate fit for an ostensibly straightforward, non-fantasy narrative.
The film is, on its most basic level, a fictionalized biopic of the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the renowned engineer behind a number of fighter planes used by the Japanese during World War II. But it turns out, like most of the director's previous efforts, this one, too, is about dreams - and, in a sense, takes place entirely within one. I can only imagine what a dusty, straightforward version of this biopic would have looked like. A literalist could only do it harm.
The "real" in Miyazaki's hand-drawn interpretation of the story almost inherently coexists with the surreal. The way he visually articulates the film's conflicted conscience could not be accomplished with more traditional means, as his masterful opening scene makes abundantly clear. A young boy clambers up to his roof on an idyllic afternoon and takes off into the sky in a small airplane, its wings practically an extension of the boy's own body. He stares into the sky at the clouds floating above, reveling in a moment of carefree elation.
But that sense of serenity is broken only moments later, as the clouds are pierced by descending bombs - almost bug-like in their appearance, frighteningly alive - that take down the boy's plane and take aim at the heretofore innocent world below. Until finally young Jiro awakens.
The whole sequence is a magnificent tone-setter for the rest of the film, an enduring emblem of the concerns both Jiro and the audience will grapple with throughout. His dreams, in both adolescence and adulthood, revolve entirely around the creation of aircrafts, for the sake of their beauty alone more than anything else. His airplanes are, as his Italian dream mentor Caproni affirms, "beautiful dreams."
But the film's conceit - exemplified in that first scene - of the way dreams can turn into nightmares is one that will haunt us until the chilling and bittersweet epilogue. Miyazaki, who also wrote the screenplay based on his own manga, is affectionate toward Jiro even while questioning whether - or to what extent - one's creations can be kept distinct from the way those creations are used. Can a killing machine still be beautiful - still be the singularly grand achievement of the imagination and spirit that its creator envisioned - on its own terms? Of course we can't simply ignore the context of that creation, or its purpose. But the film considers the contrast nonetheless - human ambition and ingenuity on one hand and human morality on the other.
Sensibly speaking, no one would favor the former over the latter, but for Jiro that choice is obscured; for him it comes down to the snuffing out of imagination itself - the denial of dreams. On a visceral level, his talent and the fulfillment of his dreams are tangible things; their end result is an abstraction.
In one scene, he not-so-jokingly contends that his plane would be faster and more effective if only its weapons were removed. The others laugh him off, but his thought is genuine. Miyazaki makes it clear that Jiro is not unconscious of what he's doing, or of what his creations are being used for. But he's careful to remind us that this is a personal story, and no one person - especially one largely removed from the horrors of war itself, despite his indirect involvement in it - can be expected to understand the full context of a war that hadn't fully been written or contextualized.
In fairness to the film's detractors - who have certainly been vocal in their concerns - The Wind Rises only explicitly confronts the reality of the war's deaths and atrocities in one scene, if I remember correctly. Still, Miyazaki presents the story, and the character, in nuanced terms and with a deliberately (and necessarily) limited point of view. The film burns with regret and uncertainty, as does Jiro himself. Its celebrations of beauty and artistry are tempered by darkness; no dream of Jiro's ever retains its innocence.
What gives The Wind Rises much of its power is the way its moral and psychological underpinnings inform the nature of its own filmmaking. There's a dexterity to animation as an art form that allows this film's often-conflicting ideas and emotions to co-exist with one another, and for Miyazaki to weave in and out of them with the grace we've come to expect. The movie itself is a shape-shifter; dreams transforming into horrors, romance transforming into danger, the beauty of imagination transforming into the ugliness of reality.