It opens with a dream sequence – a young boy awakens one morning, only to scamper up to a child-sized plane waiting for him on his home’s rooftop. Taking the controls, he lifts off into the sky, and he soars over his village, the river, up into the clouds, where his dreams of aeronautical freedom literally take flight. For a master like Hayao Miyazaki, such a sequence doesn’t seem too insane – this could all be very real, at least in Miyazaki’s whimsical and often magical worlds – but for a film like The Wind Rises, it can only be what it is, just a dream.
A highly fictionalized biography about aeronautical engineer (and creator of the Mitsubishi A5M and the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, one of the most advanced fighter planes, and the one that eventually became the choice of Japan’s “kamikaze” pilots) Jiro Horikoshi (voiced by Hideaki Anno), the film traces Jiro from his childhood up to his greatest professional achievements for Mitsubishi. The film has already been hailed as Miyazaki’s most mature work to date – and it should be, after all, The Wind Rises is concerned with highly adult themes, from artistic expression, personal tragedy, professional obsessions, all the way up to worldwide destruction. Told through Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli’s trademark hand-drawn animation, the film is visually moving and warm, even as it drags and stumbles on its way to a fulfilling final third.
A combination of the life stories of Horikoshi and Japanese author Tatsuo Hori (who wrote a short story about Horikoshi titled “The Wind Has Risen”), the film imagines Horikoshi as a driven young engineer compelled to make airplanes out of a love for their beauty. Frequently visited in his dreams by Italian aircraft designer Giovanni Caproni, young Jiro works his way up at the Mitsubishi Corporation, fueled by his desire to bring his (literal) dreams down to earth. His professional endeavors aside, Jiro eventually engages in a very moving romantic relationship that, like his greatest works, is destined for tragedy.
Despite copious source materials and a vast imagination, Miyazaki’s script is disappointingly basic, and its first two-thirds is laden with laughable lines and clichéd plot contrivances. As a biography, it’s one told by way of such ethereal elements as feeling and memory, and it fails to engage until its final third, which finally manages to marry its many elements into something moving and meaningful. As a hero, Jiro is also thinly written until his hopes and dreams truly take hold just as the film is wrapping up – almost too pure-hearted and overly magnanimous, he’s often portrayed as too “good” a hero, free of flaws that would inspire audience affection.
The freedom of the animated medium allows Miyazaki to fully realize his visual dreams, however, and The Wind Rises is frequently stunning to watch. The filmmaker particularly excels at crafting vast landscapes and wide shots that inspire nothing short of awe – they look too real to be real, too beautiful to be imagined. However, his frequent use of dream sequences is jarring, as they arrive without clear indications or reasons, and Jiro is often nearly out of a dream before its impact and meaning is clear to the audience.
Miyazaki’s wise inclusion of a love story for Jiro elevates the film just in time to end it on a high note. Reunited with a young girl he saved on a train once, Jiro finds himself healing up from a professional crash thanks to the love and care of the charming Naoko (voiced by Miori Takimoto). It’s Naoko who seemingly drives him to his great successes, even as she keeps a secret that threatens their very pure happiness. The combination of an enlivened script, a deeper emotional resonance, and stirring visuals allow The Wind Rises to finally wind down, risen indeed.
The Upside: The final act of the film beautifully brings together all of its disparate elements, resulting in something both meaningful and moving; classically lovely Miyazaki animation (especially wide shots); a complicated story told free of judgments.
The Downside: The first two-thirds of the film drag, the dream sequences (of which there are many, and all of which are stirring) arrive haphazardly and without clear differentiation between “real” action, the script is often overly simplistic.
On the Side: The Paul Valery quote that gives the film its name (“The wind is rising…we must attempt to live”) is from the poet’s 1922 collection “Charmes.”