The beloved Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki prefers fantastical world. In classics like My Neighbor Totaro and Spirited Away, the animator creates rich, imaginative worlds that delight international audiences (Disney’s animation studio often cites Miyazaki as a major influence). The Wind Rises might be Miyazaki’s last film – he claimed it would be last year, only to waffle later – and it feels like a swansong. It’s a meditative biography of Jiro Horikoshi, an influential aeronautical engineer who designed military aircraft. Of course, it’s tricky to look at his work fondly – his planes were operated by kamikaze pilots – but Miyazaki sidesteps controversy by showing the uneasy tension between innovation and war.
The story begins when Jiro is a young boy, and he already understands his bad eyesight will prevent from flying. Still, that does not prevent him from daydreaming about elaborate airplanes. In a terrific early sequence, Jiro shares a dream with Caproni, an Italian aviator he idolizes, and the pastoral landscape fills with one plane after another. Jiro is an exceptional student, and after graduation he heads to the Mitsubishi Corporation, where Depression hinders their efforts to create the military’s next great fighter plane. At a conference he happens upon Naoko, a young woman from his past, and they fall in love in a sweet, gentle way. She’s still reeling from tuberculosis, unfortunately, so Jiro tries to reconcile his professional and personal life the best way he can.
As with earlier Miyazaki films, The Wind Rises juxtaposes fantasy with reality. At first, the main conceit is Jiro’s dream world: mildly abstracted planes rush through the frame and we’re meant to share Jiro’s exhilaration. Once he gets older, Jiro is able to construct his own fantasy. Like the best animators, Miyazaki understands that his medium has a freedom of expression that live-action film does not, although here it is relatively subtle. There is a lovely sequence where Jiro and Naoko develop affection through a simple paper airplane. It’s surprisingly whimsical and funny, given that manufacturing planes requires great mathematical acumen.
There are a few scenes where Miyazaki focuses on the particulars of Jiro’s job: he’s obsessed with making an airplane with flush rivers, for one thing, and he cannot make his dream plane due to a lack of economic infrastructure. This is challenging material for an audience of non-experts, yet the scenes combine the right amount of enthusiasm and jargon to pique interest. If anything, I wish there were more scenes where Jiro and the other engineers explained the specifics of their work, but that would ultimately defeat the film’s greater purpose. It conflates romance with Jiro’s point, to the point where Jiro’s loss is an echo of Japan’s lost innocence.
There is a dark undercurrent during Jiro’s work and playful courtship, and Miyazaki brings it up early. Battle zones distort some early fantasy sequences, and the cumulative feeling is that despite his warm-hearted nature, Jiro cannot escape history and remains ambivalent about Japanese imperialism. Sometimes the film feels like it’s suffering from cognitive dissonance: Jiro travels to Germany and meets military officials there, and it’s unclear whether the Germans are Nazis. There is discussion about planes cannot hold heavy guns, which suggests their disturbing final purpose. This is not whitewashing history, exactly, nor is it an apology for Japan’s pre-war effort. Instead, The Wind Rises understands that the mother of necessity can have ugly consequences when the necessity in question is militaristic.