Saying Goodbye, Miyazaki’s Final Film The Wind Rises
By Heather Nichols
Like many of the great directors before him, legendary Japanese animator Hayou Miyazaki has announced his intent to retire multiple times. This time, I’m sure he means it. His latest film The Wind Rises, is a highly moving emotional event that combines traditional narrative with art cinema in a way that has not been seen in his previous works. In some instances this creates very powerful imagery with metaphorical undertones. Other times this combination becomes a miss match that confuses the narrative. Nevertheless, Rises is his best work in recent years. However it does not compare to the films Miyazaki is most noted for, leaving a bittersweet note to an excellent career.
The story’s central narrative revolves around Jiro Horikoshi, a boy captivated by the world of airplanes who aspires to be an aeronautical engineer. He is a highly fictionalized version of the real life Horikoshi who created the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter craft during WWII. Also featured is the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake, depicted in a scene where Jiro meets his future wife, Naoko. After conducting research, it is unclear if the real Horikoshi was ever married, so it is entirely possible that this romance arc was solely created to emphasize some of the themes of the film and embellish the climax; more on that later.
The whole opening pays homage to Miyazaki’s other works. When we are introduced to Jiro he is dreaming about flying an aircraft that highly resembles the plane we see in the beginning of Nausicaa. Shots of Jiro gliding through the town are reminiscent of the tracking shots used in Kiki’s Delivery Service. The plane that shoots Jiro down is similar to the aircrafts we see in Howl’s Moving Castle. From the get go we get that sense of closure, that we are traveling through Miyazaki’s works and reaching the beginning of the end.
Similar to Miyazaki’s other films, we learn a lot about characters through their initial actions. Jiro establishes his braveness when he stands up to two bullies picking on someone small. We learn that his sister, Kayo, has an interest in medicine when she insists on putting iodine on his wounds. Shortly after we meet Naoko during the earthquake scene, we can tell by how she is dressed and her knowledge of French that she is well educated and most likely from a wealthy family. The script shows how she is not attached to material things when she saves Jiro’s luggage from the train in favor of hers.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much else to the supporting cast. Jiro’s best friend disappears about halfway through the film, while his boss seems to play off Japanese stereotypes. This is not something we’ve come to expect from Miyazaki since he is often regarded highly when it comes to crafting characters. Usually he will feature four or five in his main cast that we get to know extensively.
There seems to be some promise with the introduction of Hans Castorp but it turns out to be an empty cameo leading to an unnecessary arc involving the secret police. The sequences with Caproni are more noteworthy for the parallels with Miyazaki himself than the execution in the actual film. When he mentions that artists only have 10 years in the sun and to enjoy it, this felt like Miyazaki’s way of saying that he himself has reached his peak and it’s time to go. It is also the most whimsical element of the film, most reminiscent of Miyazaki’s other works.
The narrative becomes quite confusing at times as the audience has very few clues that time has skipped until mentioned by a character. There isn’t a consistent pattern in going from reality to dream sequence to time lapse which causes some further confusion.
Despite these oddities the film still has its successes. In an interview Miyazaki admitted that he has mixed feelings about the war and that the film is meant to symbolize the achievements Japan made. Rises itself isn’t so much about WWII as the impact of the world on individual dreams. Jiro just wants to make beautiful airplanes yet he is born into a world where those planes will be used to kill people. Yet he pushes forward and designs something great. He brings Japanese engineering to a new level when they were at a point where the technology was decades behind the rest of the modern world.
The film adds in a romance aspect which upon the first viewing felt out of place but in revisiting it, gives more depth to the story. Naoko may not be a real person but she represents something very human and also has a strong connection to nature. Every time she and Jiro encounter, some element of nature is present. Their next scene, after the earthquake sequence, involves a gust of wind that blows her parasol to him. They are in a garden when they finally speak again which is abruptly followed by a sun shower. When Jiro is with her, he is at peace and motivated to finish his design.
It is hard to not compare her with the other women of Miyazaki’s films, especially considering that constructing dynamic female characters is one of his greatest strengths, but her purpose in the film works. I will not reveal the final scenes but that is when Naoko’s importance becomes clear. I will say that she is his humanity and reason for living, as he grapples with the knowledge that his creation will kill people. This could easily make one lose their sense of humanity but Naoko keeps him grounded.
In the end I give The Wind Rises, 3.5 out of 5. Not the greatest achievement of Miyazaki’s fantastic career, it is a deeply moving film and a notable artistic expression worth viewing and thinking about.