In The Wind Rises (receiving its Oscar-qualifying run in New York and LA this week), director Hayao Miyazaki once again carries the viewer through rapturously beautiful fantasies, hard-won pleasures and poignant sorrows. The title is taken from a line of Paul Valery, "Le vent se leve, il faut tenter de vivre" ("The wind rises, one must strive to live"), which is also the title of the novel by Tatsuo Hori that partially inspired the film.
In place of the wise-cracking fantasies and fairy tales Americans expect from animation, Miyazaki offers a biopic of Jiro Horikoshi, who designed the A6M Zero Fighter for Mitsubishi in the early days of WW II.
Miyazaki quickly established Jiro as a kind, intelligent boy, who's obsessed with flying, but knows he’s too near-sighted to be a pilot. In his dreams, Jiro meets the Italian engineer and airplane designer Count Giovanni Caproni, who assures Jiro he can realize his ambition of becoming an aeronautical engineer. Although separated by age and distance, the man and the boy agree that airplanes are "beautiful dreams." But they also recognize that their exquisite machines will be perverted into instruments of destruction.
As a student, Koji arrives in Tokyo as the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 strikes. During the ensuing chaos, he helps a young girl and her maid get to safety, using his slide rule as an improvised splint. At college, he never loses his obsession with airplanes. Eating a cheap lunch of mackerel in the student cafeteria, Koji realizes that a fish bone suggests the ideal form for a wing strut.
After graduating, he joins his best friend Honjo at Mitsubishi, designing planes under the benevolent but harried chief engineer Kurokawa. When Jiro's initial designs prove unsuccessful, he takes a vacation at a mountain hotel, where he meets a young painter. Naoko Satomi is the girl he helped during the earthquake years earlier. She's grown into a lovely young woman, but she suffers from the tuberculosis that killed her mother.
Their ill-starred romance plays against Jiro’s struggle to create a plane that embodies his dream, and her premature death can be seen as a symbol of the destruction of Jiro's hope for its peaceful use. The juxtaposition of a love of flying and the bitter reality that these wondrous machines will be used to destroy lives and property figures prominently in Miyazaki's Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Howl’s Moving Castle.
Unlike many recent American films with their endless roller coaster rides, The Winds Rises is not focused on speed. The Zero fighter exceeded the specifications the Japanese Navy requested, but Miyazaki concentrates on the magic of flight. Instead of careening the audience racing through the sky, he enables them to savor the sensation of escaping the bonds of gravity to soar over the landscape, savoring its beauty. The result approaches visual poetry, and the sensation is heightened by Miyazaki's restrained pacing.
While at the hotel, Jiro uses his engineering skills to fashion an elegant paper airplane that he tosses at Naoko’s balcony as a declaration of his affection. The first few times he throws it, the plane falls short or slips through her fingertips, and Jiro crashes through the shrubbery to retrieve it. In an American film, Naoko would of catch the plane on its first launch or Jiro would go through an exaggerated series of crotch-banging falls that ended with him landing in a bucket of paint. The believable awkwardness of the scene humanizes the characters and wins the viewer’s sympathy for their doomed affection.
Will The Wind Rises find the audience it deserves here? Critics in Japan and America have noted that the film is aimed at a more adult audience than Miyazaki’s other features. (The director said he made Porco Rosso for tired businessmen to watch on their way home from foreign trips and was surprised by its popularity with children.) PC commentators have complained that the characters in Wind Rises smoke too many cigarettes, although portraying them as non-smokers would be inaccurate and anachronistic.
American audiences may find the idea of an animated bio pic odd, although there have been others in Japan—notably Shoji Kawamori's Spring and Chaos, a cartoon life of Kenji Miayazawa, the beloved author of "The Night on the Galactic Railway." But the subject of The Wind Rises presents more serious challenges for the film in the US. The Japanese Imperial Navy used the Zero Fighter in China and the Pacific in the early 40's with devastating results. Will American viewers accept a film about its designer - especially the older membership of the Motion Picture Academy who remember the War?
Cultural questions aside, The Wind Rises is not only the best animated film released to date this year, but one of the best films released this year. If it has the unhappy distinction of being Hayao Miyazaki’s last feature, it shows the director at the height of his powers making a premature but glorious exit.