While time will only tell if Hayao Miyazaki’s latest film, the World War II era period piece The Wind Rises, will be the animation auteur’s final feature, if it turns out to be true he’s certainly ending his career on a high note. It’s not his best work overall or even the most adult oriented feature created by Studio Ghibli (that’s still Takahada’s Grave of the Fireflies), but it’s certainly a mature work befitting a potential career capper. It’s a mournful, nostalgic, conflicted, and deeply personal look at the creative spirit and the evil compromises that sometimes go hand in hand with genius and success.
Jiro (voiced by Evangelion director Hideaki Anno in the original Japanese version and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the English dub, both of which are screening in Toronto side-by-side) has dreamed since childhood of being an aeronautical engineer, inspired by his love of the marvellous flying machines of Italian designer Caproni (Stanley Tucci). Shortly after the great Japanese earthquake of 1923, Jiro begins a pair of relationships that would forever inform his career: one with his best friend and closest rival/confidant Honjo (Hidetoshi Nishimura, John Krasinski) and the woman that he loves (Maori Takimoto, Emily Blunt). Jiro becomes highly sought after for his groundbreaking and boundary pushing designs that could help tip the scales in Japan’s war efforts by updating their badly out of date aircraft designs, but due to stress, personal conviction, and his own passions, Jiro feels deeply conflicted when it comes to creating machines of mass destruction and death.
More of a character piece than a historical epic, there’s very little of the fantastical side to Miyazaki’s imagination to be seen after a few early dream sequences where a young Jiro finds fear in the future and comfort in the guidance of his boyhood idol. From then on, Miyazaki’s film quite literally grows up around the character, but that doesn’t mean that any sense of wonder is lost. Jiro (who’s an amalgamation of several Japanese figures, both real and fictional) ranks among one of the filmmaker’s greatest protagonists: a man who simply feels the need to create and to make major changes in his given field of expertise. Jiro’s existence isn’t solitary, but rather one where he can place his trust in a precious few people.
To that same degree, there’s also a degree of possible unnoticed selfishness to the character. Honjo isn’t always particularly taken by Jiro’s more fanciful ideas even when he sees them in action and at one point is flat out offered the ability to use them by Jiro. It showcases both Jiro’s, and possibly Miyazaki’s, desire to always be the smartest person in the room. It’s also interesting to note just how deep of a love Jiro can have with a doomed woman that he can barely share a bed with since she has been suffering from tuberculosis. When she’s in danger or desperate need, Jiro is very quick to rush to her side, but the rest of their relationship is considerably played out at an arm’s length. Both relationships speak to the kind of creative drive that often goes hand in hand with genius: that desire to love and be admired, but to constantly step away to keep creating. While he’s close to Honjo and his wife, there really never seems like that deep of a connection beyond obvious affection.
And ultimately, that might be why The Wind Rises is simultaneously Miyazaki’s most personal and most finite work to date. It builds to a conclusion that isn’t necessarily as unhappy as it could have been, but the sum of every small compromise Jiro has made over the course of his career. It ends on a note of a brilliant man looking back and wondering what else he could have done or where he could have changed things, but while still showing some degree of pride for his work. Jiro isn’t villainous because he helped the Japanese (and inadvertently and against his will The German) armed forces. Miyazaki casts the man simply as an artisan who has to do what any creative type has to do in a crisis: to work with what they are given. It’s sympathetic to a great degree, and while the strangely apolitical stance does get a bit jarring and shrug-worthy towards the end, it’s clear that Miyazaki wants to tell more about art and industry rather than the military complex during the Great Depression.
While it’s gorgeously animated and filled with visual complexity in every frame, the only real wonder comes from thinking about The Wind Rises as potentially being Miyazaki’s swan song. It certainly feels like one, but he’s also threatened retirement before, so it’s hard to really say anymore if we’ll actually see anything from him again. It’s impossible not to think of Jiro being Miyazaki’s surrogate by the conclusion: a lone creator looking back on the world he helped to shape and the things he had to sacrifice to shape it. That’s what ultimately makes the film’s subtext just as fascinating as the story.
As for the debate between the dubbed version and the subtitled Japanese original, it’s pleasing to report that after the massive misstep of Ponyo (whose dub is atrocious) things seem to be back on track for the Walt Disney produced and distributed English versions. If you only have access to the dubbed version in your area, you’re getting essentially the same film, but you’re also getting Wener Herzog in a memorable minor role. It’s almost worth it to watch the dub just for his character alone.