Last year, Japanese anime director and animation icon Hayao Miyazaki announced that he would retire from directing. This isn’t the first time the director said he would retire, as he previously claimed that Princess Mononoke (1997) would be his last film as a director. If Miyazaki does retire from directing, than that means that the 2013 film The Wind Rises will be his last picture. While Miyazaki will still be a figure around Studio Ghibli working on other projects, The Wind Rises may be the last time the studio releases a film that is pure Miyazaki. If that’s the case, then how does The Wind Rises hold up?
The Wind Rises is both an example of Miyazaki’s auteur status and a departure from what he regularly produces. The film is a fictionalized biopic of the life of Jiro Horikoshi, an aeronautical engineer and chief designer of many of the airplanes used by the Japanese military in World War II. The film follows Horikoshi as he grows into adulthood, showing his education and the challenges he faces as an airplane designer and engineer. The story, which also blends a novel by Tatsuo Hori into Horikoshi’s life, also shows how Horikoshi’s relationship with a young woman named Naoko affected him and the work he created.
The film is not intended to be a faithful representation of Horikoshi’s life. Naoko never existed, and many of the events that Horikoshi deals with also never happened. However, what is important is how Miyazaki uses the elements of Horikoshi’s life and Hori’s novel with his aesthetic to tell a story. The Wind Rises is not a realistic movie, but it never attempts to be wholly realistic.
The film blends magical realism with Horikoshi’s life. Throughout the film, Horikoshi and an Italian plane designer named Caproni share dreams, each man sharing their ideas about art, beauty, and airplanes as they continue to meet in the dream scape. There is no real explanation behind these dreams, but they do add to the greater themes of the story.
Horikoshi’s dream in life was to build airplanes. He and Caproni saw the beauty in aircraft and the freedom that flying gave a man. However, both men lived in countries that fell into war, forcing the men to use their creations as weapons. Horikoshi at one point jokes that a plane of his would fly easier without the guns, but this is merely laughed off. Despite building tools of death and destruction, Horikoshi learns to love life and to love his craft. It’s his relationship with Naoko and his dream meetings with Caproni that allow him to avoid falling into cynicism.
This is important because of what Miyazaki said in a recent interview. The director criticized Japan’s anime industry, claiming that most of it is decided by otaku, or anime fans, who fail to observe real life when they create anime and manga. The Wind Rises can be seen as an allegory for these feelings. Horikoshi is a pure artist and dreamer, but he has to compromise his talents to create weapons of destruction. His major accomplishments in life will be regarded for how they were used in war, even though all he wanted was the freedom to fly and create. For Miyazaki, he is an artist living in a culture where most anime is based on various fetishes.
Because of that, The Wind Rises is also a subversive Miyazaki film, while still retaining a lot of his trademarks. The hand drawn animation is gorgeous, and the scenes of flying and other more fantastic sequences like the dreams are truly visual marvels. However, it’s also a more down to earth story, lacking a lot of the fantasy that can be found in films like Castle in the Skyor Spirited Away. The Wind Rises is more like other films produced by Studio Ghibli like Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies or Yoshifumi Kondo’s Whisper of the Heart, where they use the medium to tell realistic stories with touches of fantasy all while keeping the human drama present.
With this, Miyazaki’s final film is one that is quite the departure from his previous works, but probably one of his better films. It’s not going to be as popular as Princess Mononoke or My Neighbor Totoro, but it’s still quite an accomplishment. This film could have easily been a live action drama, but animating it allowed Horikoshi’s tale to be told in a much more elegant way. If this really is his final film, then it will be an appropriate end to the legacy of one of the greatest animation directors ever. If it isn’t his last film, then hopefully this will be the end of one era and lead to the start of something even greater.