'The Wind Rises' in Miyazaki's last ode to dreams

Walt Disney

By Sean Czarnecki, Daily Arts Writer
Published March 9, 2014

Death and darkness seem to always stir at the periphery of all of Hayao Miyazaki’s visionary work (“Spirited Away”). A wild dreamscape drops over the world. Uncertainty sets in, then fear and catastrophe, all of which sustain equal parts of wonder and terror. And yet time and time again, Miyazaki saves us without shutting us blind to harsh realities, and with his latest feature, “The Wind Rises,” perhaps for the last time.

The Wind Rises

Walt Disney Pictures
Michigan Theater

Miyazaki is retiring, an announcement which we’ve heard before from the legendary anime director, but there’s a terrible certainty this time around. In “The Wind Rises,” he turns now to where his mind has wandered these past six decades — to his dreams, to the sky. The whimsy of his past films has been toned down for a more somber film, and suitably so. This is the story of Jiro Horikoshi (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “Don Jon”), the mastermind behind the infamous World War II fighter plane, the Mitsubishi Zero.

Horikoshi knows that with the creation of his vision comes destruction. It will kill Chinese soldiers, it will kill British soldiers, it will kill American soldiers. But history can wait; history must wait. Horikoshi is on a solitary path that to turn from would mean the ruin of all toward which he strives: He must dream, he must create.

In scenes of destruction that border on the apocalyptic, we are reminded throughout the picture that war draws near. Miyazaki, as an animator, artist and director, develops some of his best work in his rendering of the pandemonium of the Great Kanto Earthquake.

We begin in blackness and a long crack of dark light that splits open the void. The land rolls like a huge rug and the passengers of a train hold tight. As the earthquake subsides we watch little stones shake and shift among each other. Equally impressive is a shot of a crowd in its thousands swarm for safety. Miyazaki’s work ethic has always stunned American animators, and his artistry here shows no less effort nor imagination.

We often picture Japan, a small island frequently struck by earthquakes and tsunamis, as a place of annihilation, but also reassembly and growth, tied to the past, pulling for the future. Such themes are always present in Miyazaki’s films, in his redemption-bound character. Horikoshi is a visionary, who by the end of the film, becomes emblematic of all Japanese innovation. His planes bear his own auteuristic spirit and his love for Japan in their graceful design and forward-thinking mechanics. In this way, Miyazaki finds a kindred spirit in Horikoshi.

Most of the film concerns itself with Horikoshi’s journey as an aerospace engineer, but there are also incredible character moments in “The Wind Rises.” Much of the tertiary cast relies on tropes, such as the blue-eyed German named Castorp (the great Werner Herzog, “Grizzly Man”), who recalls the joie de vivre of Count Greffi of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Still, Miyazaki enriches each of these familiar themes with his own brand of humor. No character seems superfluous. As Roger Ebert once wrote of a hopping one-footed lamp in “Spirited Away”: “It is a gift from Miyazaki.”

Miyazaki’s observations are quiet, even generous. Each of these scenes fill naturally with their own sorts of rhythms and images — slowly, with delight and understanding, free of action-driven plots. Discovery should be its own pursuit.

We continuously return to Horikoshi’s dreams. We enter rooms of working engineers. The ceiling fades, and overhead passes a plane they all envision at once, passes so close you could run your fingers over the length of its body. It is Horikoshi’s dream, but they all see it as clearly as he can, if only for a moment, and now his plane belongs to all of them.

In one of the first of these dreams, a spirited Italian engineer named Giovanni Caproni (based on a real historical figure) demands to know how “Japanese Boy” wandered into his dreams. Then he invites him to stroll along the wing of his plane while it soars. It’s a friendship that will last his entire life — between Italian and Japanese — and they never even meet in real life. Throughout “The Wind Rises” aeroengineers fight against the warhawk nationalist energies that drive (and finance) their projects. They want only to create “beautiful dreams,” as Caproni says. “Engineers turn dreams into reality.” Miyazaki illustrates the necessity of other-worldly thinkers like Horikoshi, and the collaborative nature of invention in these shared spaces of imagination, wherein all minds unite toward one goal.

Here is a celebration fitting to tie off Miyazaki’s body of work — bittersweet as a farewell, comforting as an ode to the future. A monument to Japan's innovating spirits, and the minds the world over. Miyazaki may retire after the many years he’s sacrificed in order to delight his audiences and we will miss him. But what a beautiful dream it truly has been.