The Wind Rises is Hayao Miyazaki’s last feature-length project. I don’t trust that guy: his final project is probably to re-animate himself and continue working as a lich.
Fortunately there’s an extensive archive of Miyazaki films with which to soothe my current feelings, but I remember how typical Ghibli themes and motifs also appeared in The Wind Rises and return to lowing into my tea mug with sad, nerdy ruminations.
The ingredients are there: beautiful animation (hand drawn and sometimes appealingly noisy, as in Ponyo), aircraft, gorgeously detailed landscapes and architecture. As it’s wartime, the most obvious comparison is Grave of the Fireflies. Not to say The Wind Rises is a trope re-hash: it’s its own strange, troubling creature. Instead of the plucky but ultimately helpless children in Fireflies, The Wind Rises has Jiro Hirokoshi, a young man protected in exchange for his prodigious engineering skills. We see war from his sheltered vantage point.
… Jiro is an intrinsically likeable, good character …
Jiro is an intrinsically likeable, good character. As a kid, he wears enormous glasses and wants to build planes. He knows fighting is wrong but neatly shoulder-throws bullies to protect the weak. He’s hard working, gallant towards women and deferential to his elders, retaining these noble traits when he grows up to be softly voiced by Hideaki Anno (whose appointment was presumably a nudge-wink for anime nerds).
The adult Jiro puts on a lilac suit and designs flying death machines for Mitsubishi. Early in his career Jiro and his friend Honjo go to Germany on a company trip. While Germany and Japan established mutual political interests during this period, on a personal level the interactions between these nations mean poorly hidden contempt and mistrust. The Nazis are depicted as objectionable not because they’re genocidal imperialists, but because they deny Jiro and Honjo knowledge of superior aircraft technology while shouting rudely.
… Mr. Castorp … inexplicably resembles Mark Gatiss with glass marble eyes …
Germany makes Jiro and Honjo self-conscious of their apparently backwards, undesirable Japaneseness. Later, when offering a smoke to the mysterious German Mr. Castorp at a summer mountain resort, Jiro apologises for the Japaneseness of his cigarettes. Mr. Castorp, who inexplicably resembles Mark Gatiss with glass marble eyes, recites a list of Japanese war crimes and predicts the government will pretend nothing happened. Jiro simply listens while giving Castorp a sidelong look.
Jiro’s main activity at the summer resort is wooing Naoko with paper planes. Naoko is possibly the first Miyazaki heroine who’s more of a symbol than a character with human flaws and motivations. She’s as fleeting and sudden as the natural forces which bring her and Jiro together in the movie: their meeting, re-union, and parting is facilitated and told through the wind.
… When Jiro successfully designs the Zero fighter, Naoko steals away to die alone …
We don’t know much about Naoko other than she’s well off, well-read, likes to paint (en plein air, obviously), and that her beauty is unaffected by tuberculosis. Her disposition is bright “like the sun,” as described by Jiro’s spirited little sister, the young doctor Kayo. The couple treat each day of their marriage as precious: they’re aware their time together is brief. When Jiro successfully designs the Zero fighter, Naoko steals away to die alone.
It sounds grimly regressive for a Ghibli film. On one hand, Naoko is as tenacious a character as Jiro, each chasing their highest calling despite all odds. On the other hand, while Jiro pursues aircraft engineering and a happy marriage, Naoko only wants to love and be loved by her husband the fullest extent, which I’m sure has absolutely nothing to do with gender stereotypes.
… She gave her life to her husband but her death belongs only to herself …
No, but I’m genuinely trying to appreciate what we have here: she chooses to live what life she has left with Jiro, initiating their wedding night and enjoying his company. She decides to die with dignity, walking back to the sanatorium–to death–on her own. She gave her life to her husband but her death belongs only to herself. There’s pure, quiet steel in her: she achieves her aim. And it’s genuinely heart-breaking.
Miyazaki’s known for his strongly written women protagonists. He’s also famously vocal about his anti-war stance, criticising Japan’s refusal to properly apologise for its aggressions in World War 2. He weaves his anger at injustice into aesops for his films with great skill. Where is this complexity in The Wind Rises?
… Jiro’s work is driven by an optimistic, naïve nationalism …
The hinomaru appears throughout the film on flags and the wings of planes. He never directly verbalises this, but Jiro’s work is driven by an optimistic, naïve nationalism: he wants Japan to have beautiful planes, too. Jiro has an almost single-minded dedication to his work as a designer. Dimly aware his work will ultimately cause destruction (his design, the ‘Zero’ fighter, was used in the attack on Pearl Harbour), what he truly wants to achieve is perfect flight. He intends no harm while contributing directly to it.
Evil is not a monstrous force but a human chain. Jiro sits behind his desk and draws; like any creative, he has little control over what people finally do with his creations and is removed from the final effects. But the questions of what else Jiro could have done, or the ways in which he actually is accountable, are simply never raised in the film. Aside from a casual joke about dropping the guns from a design, Jiro never really shows distaste towards war. It’s very human–though still frustrating–that he simply chooses to keep his head down.
… he’s unable to enlarge the scope of his single self: in the face of atrocity he is ultimately pathetic …
We want our heroes to be exceptionally courageous and so are disappointed when they have ordinary levels of self-preservation. As an individual, Jiro will protect people immediately around him, but he’s unable to enlarge the scope of his single self: in the face of atrocity he is ultimately pathetic. His sweet-faced, floppy-haired character design gives adult Jiro the impression of a little boy playing with planes.
Jiro is largely given a sense of interiority through imaginary conversations with his dream guide, Caproni, an Italian aircraft designer. Both Caproni and Jiro desire a world with pyramids (or, in their case, flying death machines) than without, because of their beauty. Jiro says little more than that; it would be much easier to disapprove of his character if he’d equivocated further, sketching an inner conflict. The audience must fill in his silences.
The Wind Rises is an occasionally frustrating study of the fleeting bitter-sweetness of human life. It makes darts and snatches at what it means to be accountable for great and terrible creations. Watch it for the reliably stunning visuals, stay heartbroken and debating its meaning for days.