Wind is fickle. One day it erodes mountains, and the next it softly grazes your cheek. It bends the largest trees, but then offers quiet respite on a hot day. Harnessed, it can be the substance of power, offering utility to humanity. But left to its wild nature, wind can devastate and kill. Humanity is subject to its whim.
This ethereality is something Hayao Miyazaki has always understood. Wind is the persistent element in all eight of his films. Sometimes it is a shepherd of duty, as it is in Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind. Other times, it represents the spirituality of wonder, as it does in Spirited Away. In Castle in the Sky, it acts as a stormy force of destruction and discovery. But whatever form the wind takes, it is always there.
Think back to the first time you watched a Hayao Miyazaki film. It is an astonishing moment. There is something unique about how his movies strike the audience. In my mind, that element is his attention to detail. Miyazaki separates himself from his peers by putting more intricacy into his art than perhaps any other animator. In practice, this often manifests itself through his use of wind.
There is a sequence in The Wind Rises where the female lead, Nahoko (Emily Blunt), is painting on a hill. A gentle breeze moves through the grass, and her dress ripples in kind. The wind picks up and rustles her hair; she puts her hand on her hat to keep it from blowing away. It is easy to get taken up in the purity of moments like this, especially when the movie is so rife with Miyazaki’s signature touches.
In The Wind Rises, wind is moved to the forefront of thought. What once existed as aesthetic dressing now steps into the spotlight. This decision brings us closer to Miyazaki’s creative process, offering us a peak at his secret ingredient, and the result is a movie which transcends traditional narrative structure. He uses his swan song to bid farewell to his audience with self-reflection. It is an exercise in raw sincerity, and he revels in the exposure.
Satoshi Kon was perhaps the only other modern Japanese animator who could stand confidently beside Miyazaki in skill and reputation. Both were true masters of the medium; Miyazaki wove epic moralistic tales featuring young protagonists while Kon often told nightmarish adult stories about tortured men and women. As shown in the highly influential Perfect Blue and Paprika, Kon was adept at developing highly-structured psychological narrative. But Hayao Miyazaki embraced emotion above all else. His mission was always empathy. The Wind Rises effectively demonstrates this alternative approach and celebrates it.
The Wind Rises falls in line with Miyazaki’s long held pacifist views on war. It takes a nuanced approach to the issue, never pushing beyond the means of the story. His proxy for this message is Jirô Horikoshi (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), based on the real-world airplane engineer whose designs helped revolutionize the Japanese air force. While Jirô mostly struggles with balancing his professional ambition with his home life, he often questions his ethical duty as he toils away for the military.
The interplay of narrative subtlety and parallel themes means that Jirô comes across as a complex and realistic character. But along the way, Miyazaki’s antiwar sentiment gets lost among the film’s many subplots and internal conflicts. I am sure many will compare The Wind Rises to Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, which is to the detriment of both movies. Takahata’s story is a highly focused tale about family and the devastation of war. In contrast, Miyazaki’s film is epic and sprawling, but consequently less searing. They are two sides of the same coin.
Admittedly, Miyazaki’s final film is not his best. Its story meanders and its tone is wild and uneven. But underlying this inconsistency is an honest and affecting candor. Jirô’s love of engineering mirrors Miyazaki’s own obsession with pitch-perfect animation; I wonder if this is what makes his story feel so authentic. Regardless, The Wind Rises explores what is an ultimately human journey of love, passion and loss.
Like the wind, Jirô’s odyssey often soars with intensity before falling into quiescence. My smiles regularly met with tears as the invisible gusts blew on; that is the experience of watching The Wind Rises. In the film, the oft-quoted poem by Paul Valéry states, “The wind rises! We must try to live!” Indeed, Hayao Miyazaki has lived. His last movie is his proof.
Movie Verdict: Win
Author’s Note – In an interview with Roger Ebert in 2002, Miyazaki talked about these peaceful moments I mentioned in this review. He called them “ma,” or “emptiness,” and suggested that without them, there’s “no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness.”