"All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful." –Jori Horikoshi
Wind as love, as inspiration, as history, as time, as death. In Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises, wind isn't just what makes flight, one of the director’s lifelong obsessions, possible, but is also what introduces (and reintroduces years later) two lovers to each other, carrying hats and parasols from one to the other—wind, here, is also fate. A powerfully binding force, wind is something that cannot be controlled but can be wielded for beauty, for creation. The film follows Jiro Horikoshi from when he dreams of engineering airplanes as a young boy in the wake of WWI, to when he becomes a key designer for Japan leading up to the dawn of WWII. Wind is also war. His fascination with flight completely separate from any notions of violence, Jiro is both a beneficiary and a victim of the war, having been given the opportunity to fulfill his dream only because of it, his creativity linked beyond his control to mass destruction and pain (Herzog's Dieter Dengler films make for nice companion pieces here). Like history, like love, like war, and like death, wind exists as something large and connective, beyond an individual's control, something seen and felt gusting past.
Restrained and quietly poetic, Miyazaki's supposedly final film is his least fantastical, depicting thirty some years of Horikoshi's life, but Miyazaki's imagination is not holding back: a series of dream sequences (in which the renowned Italian aeronautical engineer Gianni Caproni visits and and advises Jori) allow him to have freer reign, but moreover, his unique sense of this world, its movements, is somehow as bewitching as something as far from reality as Spirited Away. Indeed, what makes The Wind Rises particularly moving is that it finds beauty in the real world. Unlike any one film that he has made, but sharing qualities with all of them, The Wind Rises is as personal as Porco Rosso, as rooted in a real adult world as My Neighbor Totoro, and as nuanced and sobering as Princess Mononoke with its themes of nature, man, and war. What especially sets The Wind Rises apart is its love story, distinct from any other Miyazaki has portrayed. Jiro meets Naoko as a young girl on a train just as the Kanto Earthquake of 1923 hits, their romance's origins immediately something tied to history—and eventually as something that cannot escape it. The sense of the passage of time, of the history as present, creates a contrast with Jiro and Naoko's love which always feels new, young, and just beginning, life tragically rushing it by, framed as it is between two wars, between an earthquake and man-made catastrophe. In contrast, the earthquake and its damage somehow seems fluid and natural whereas war is visualized as a sort of stagnancy, a cruel dark fog. One shot of a graveyard of planes suggests endless loss. From the opening dream sequence, in which anthropomorphic bombs interrupt a blissful flight through the clouds, war is inextricably a part of Jiro's story.
Miyazaki’s characteristic pacifism is, like in Mononoke, at its most mature and least idealistic here. Both films are about balance but in Mononoke it is about a balance between industry and nature, and while The Wind Rises certainly emerges partly from Miyazaki's ecological devotion, this is about a tragic balance wherein beauty and destruction, and life and death, cannot exist without the other.
The most sophisticated of his films, The Wind Rises is filled from beginning to end with stunningly composed "shots" and an intricate sound design, at times ecstatic, and at others focused to the point of being muted. It is also one of the most classically made films of the year, and finds Miyazaki working within a mode I fear we won't see animation tackle again without him. But even for all its profound splendor and heartbreak, as well as its expertly crafted, sweeping narrative, it's still the slightest idiosyncratic details that define Miyazaki's work. It can be as small as how he renders a baby's face, the way a tossed paper plane briefly becomes an animate object, the secret sweetness of a grumpy girl's glare, the way Naoko glows in one shot (the film's most moving moment, perhaps), how the wind ripples through the grass, clothes, and lives, and how, in spite of all this wonderful movement, stillness can be Miyazaki's most beautiful tool.