For an acclaimed director who built his career on the portrayal of strong female characters, choosing the story of Jiro Horikoshi – the Japanese plane designer responsible for the creation of important World War II fighters – as the basis for his swan song is certainly an oddity. However, that is precisely how Hayao Miyazaki, the head of Studio Ghibli, puts an exclamation point on his life's astounding body of work.
With “The Wind Rises” he displays, in glorious and lush animation, a slightly romanticized view of the life of a man who, like many others, dealt with the conflict of watching his passion be turned into a killing machine by the powers that be. Horikoshi once famously stated that “All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful”, and – with that sentence as his source of inspiration – Miyazaki put together one of his most thought-provoking creations.
It all begins at the point when a teenage Jiro, who dreamed of becoming a pilot, realizes he will never be one due to his poor eyesight. Instead, moved by an utopic dream in which he sees the creation of planes as something purely beautiful and liberating, the young boy sets out to be a designer. The movie, then, chronicles his life up to the moment a devastated Japan tries to recover after an utterly catastrophic war that left the country in hopeless ruins.
The movie's complete arch is rather telling of its nature: it begins with a naive colorful delirium that gives birth to a slightly idealistic human, and ends with the confrontation of that purity with the cold bitterness of reality. Jiro is so overwhelmed by his desire to make a plane that matches what is being produced internationally that he frequently overlooks what the objective of these machines are. However, he is often being put face-to-face with the poisonous power struggle that is so prominent in the real world.
“The Wind Rises” does not solely focus on Jiro's legendary professional career, though. Miyazaki takes some liberties with the designer's biography in order to add a layer of romance to the story. That extra element, however, is perfectly tied together with the movie's overall theme. Jiro meets and marries a woman afflicted tuberculosis, and even if her very delicate condition requires special care, she often willingly neglects it in order to get to spend time with her beloved husband.
Jiro, in turn, as an extremely driven professional, occasionally lets his work get the best of him, failing to come home on time, or be there when she is in need of his presence. It creates an interesting contrast, for while at work he is the one that compromises the ideal beauty of flying due to the final purpose of the planes he designs, at home his wife sacrifices herself so she can support him entirely and they are able to create beautiful memories while they can.
“The Wind Rises”, therefore, is not unique in the director's canon only as a movie that stars a male character. It is also rather distinctive in the fact that it is firmly realistic. Dreams of lovely aviation get shattered by wars on which both sides waste human lives; promises of love that are genuine end up being sometimes broken by dull and gray duty.
It is not, by any means, a sad movie. The couple gets to live a relatively happy and beautiful marriage, and the wide-eyed boy does watch the plane of his dreams take off in its full splendor. Yet, none of those achievements are as unblemished as they were supposed to be. They are dented by the vicious claws of reality, and that might make them even more beautiful, for nothing that comes too easily is as gorgeous as something created in the midst of daunting difficulties.
By far, the largest triumph achieved on “The Wind Rises” is that it does not make any points. As a movie that gravitates around the life of a man who created machines of war, it obviously touches on some extremely delicate questions. Still, it does not take any sides.
It approaches its more sensitive matters extremely loosely, a delicacy that is often the main calling card of all the masterpieces ever done by Studio Ghibli; and it raises a lot of questions, both political and personal, only to leave them floating in the air so that each viewer – with their backgrounds and points of view – can decide what to think of what they are seeing. Its themes remain low-key throughout the movie's running time, which showcases impressive movie-making maturity.
In spite of all that depth, “The Wind Rises” is far from perfect. By going through a great part of the life of a complex character in two hours, the movie skips around a little bit too much. A few times, it cuts from one situation to the next, which might happen five years later on a totally different location, without providing a smooth transition between the two scenarios.
Consequently, some of the scenes feel – for some minutes – a little bit disjointed from the previous happenings, which can slightly harm the emotional effects or thematic value some occurrences are meant to have. In some cases, that lack of unity can cause some of the movie's minor relationships to feel quickly put together, making some supposedly major scenes either come off as slightly awkward or fall completely flat.
Hayao Miyazaki may not have ended his journey as a director by assembling his greatest work, but he does leave the spotlight with a good round of a applause. “The Wind Rises”, without abandoning a dreamy atmosphere, is far more realistic than any of his other works, and it shows a strong prowess in dealing with and developing a major male character. More importantly, it is a film that lifts so many questions up to the air, demanding further thoughts and analysis, that it doesn't matter what lesson one will take from this movie, it will certainly be imprinted in one's mind for years to come.