Rise to the Occasion, by Scott Nye
Note: This review, expanded from one that ran last November, concerns the original Japanese-language version of The Wind Rises. An English-language version opens nationwide tomorrow, though the original version will also screen in select cities. Readers are advised to seek that out if possible.
Departing (though, given the film’s numerous breathtaking dream sequences, not entirely) from his familiar fantastical realms, legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki tells a fictionalized biography of Jiro Horikoshi, the chief engineer of many Japanese fighter planes used during World War II, including one that played a prominent part in the attack on Pearl Harbor. This is important information to know up front, because such specifics are not the central concern of the film. It’s more general, universal, about how the purest ambitions can be warped by the times in which one lives, as opportunities are dictated by those with the money, and those with the money need motivations that might wildly differ from your own.
Jiro is inspired by Giovanni Caproni, whose company produced bombers used by Italy, France, Great Britain, and the United States during the first World War. What attracts Jiro to Caproni is not the destructive aspect, but rather that an airplane designer could rise to such prominence and celebrity. In Jiro’s dreams, he speaks with Caproni about the film’s major thematic concerns, how the latter has big dreams for aviation once the war is over, and Miyazaki brings his subjects’ imaginations to glorious life, dreaming up the most impossible planes in the only realm that could sustain them.
The real Caproni would end up making only bombers and light transport vehicles after World War I, and geared right back up for the war machine when the second hit. He attempted to create a fascinatingly complex transatlantic passenger, but it crashed on its first flight. Like Jiro, his dreams were immense, but they each excelled only at what, in the film, they profess to look down upon. It’s a beautiful dichotomy to play with, but Miyazaki remains less focused on the results of such pursuits than the very act of pursuit. The film is thus far from the traditional biopic, even more a departure than its form would suggest, folding into the realm of speculative expression – Miyazaki is after Horikoshi’s intellect, his emotion, his dreams and passions, represented best by what I’m told is an entirely invented third act that sees one of the most heartbreaking romances of Japanese cinema since Naruse left it.
Here, Jiro befriends and gradually becomes romantically involved with a young woman afflicted with tuberculosis. She is determined they should not marry until she gets well, but when that begins to appear impossible, she makes the decision any young person worth their salt would – cast aside rational thinking in an effort to chase what they most desire. Just because a romance can’t possibly have a happy outcome does not mean said love should not be requited.
When I first saw The Wind Rises last November, I did not look upon it especially favorably, feeling that by omitting much of the eventual results of Jiro’s machines, Miyazaki was denying the central moral force of the story, perhaps even to himself. While a little more suggestions towards this would be welcome, I now recognize that any educated viewer could probably surmise, without necessarily needing the specifics, that Jiro’s planes will not be rushing out to spread peace. The moral integrity of the film is strong, in large part because it does not bear itself too forcefully, and keeps its perspective limited. We should question the excitement that meets Jiro’s most productive period, the extent to which he’s dedicated to his work while his wife suffers at home, and the fact that his disappointment in his products has more to do with the limitations imposed than their eventual purpose. Like many great films, our protagonist need not be our vessel; he can be at turns sympathetic and pitiable, fascinating and horrifying. Miyazaki simply accomplishes this feeling without rubbing our face in the muck of it all.