Miyazaki’s Swan Song THE WIND RISES is Ambitious, but Disappointing

If there are any of you out there in the ether that have not seen or are unaware of the movies of Hayao Miyazaki, stop right now and rent, stream, beg, borrow, or steal any Miyazaki titles you can get your hands on—even if you are convinced that all Japanese anime looks and smells like Pokémon.

I love the movies of Hayao Miyazaki. When his films are a complete success—especially Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and My Neighbor Totoro—they are deservedly regarded as animation masterpieces. When he falls a bit short of our expectations—say Howl’s Moving Castle or Ponyo—we are disappointed mostly because Miyazaki’s best work is a hard act to follow.

Regardless, all of his films are worth the time and effort and demand multiple viewings. There are times I have played a DVD of Kiki’s Delivery Service or Castle in the Sky and watched it without any sound. I just drink in the drawings: each blade of windswept grass, each train car, every airship or quaint, wood-paneled building interior. And of course we revel in the miracle of flight. Miyazaki is obsessed with flight, whether it manifests as the dragon from Spirited Away, is presented as the swimming of Ponyo, or best of all in the alternate realities of Castle in the Sky and Porco Rosso where plane travel was developed prior to automobiles.

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Add to the beauty the odd subtlety in the midst of all the bright, detailed animation—the sleeping giants in Castle, the steaming, delicious food in Kiki, the grouchy fire demon in Howl. These understated ingredients add to the expanding tapestry of the entire work. Miyazaki delivers layer upon layer of ingenious storytelling to an already lovely landscape.

So when Miyazaki announced that he planned to retire after the completion of his latest film, The Wind Rises, I was saddened by the loss of any future Miyazaki projects only to learn that he is working on an enormous manga project—his first since the multi-volume Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, an epic he later turned into a feature anime film. Miyazaki wants to leave his beloved art form behind with a bold artistic statement; a career-spanning treatise. With The Wind Rises, he pushes himself beyond anything he’s done before, and the results are exciting, breath-taking, and heart-breaking. But the final result delivers a movie in which the total never achieves beyond the sum of its parts.

The Wind Rises tells the story of two of Japan’s leading aeronautical engineers, Jiro and XX. The story focuses on real-life aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi—his passion and obsession with flying makes for an ideal mesh of machinery, nature, and art. Jiro is a man who wants to make his creations soar above the boundaries of earthbound men, much like Hawthorne’s “The Artist of the Beautiful.” This conceit alone would make for a beautiful movie, but Miyazaki takes things a few steps beyond.

We meet the love of Jiro’s life, Naoko. Years earlier, he had saved her when both were caught on board a moving train when the devastating earthquake on 1923 practically leveled Tokyo. Naoko later runs into Jiro at the coincidental Thomas Mann theme park and sanitarium. She is slowly dying from consumption; Jiro is there for the cure because of a mental breakdown he experienced that was caused by the failure of his fighter plane project, which resulted in the death of the test pilot. At least we think that is why he is there; we aren’t sure and Miyazaki doesn’t tell us or show us anything. The whole setup seems to exist so Jiro can meet up with Naoko and they can begin a sad, tortured love affair.

Again we have enough for two movies at this point, but Miyazaki is not done. He adds a conscientious German to the mix—who stands in for Herr Mann as well as modern society. Jiro has had to rely on German engineering to get the Japanese air program off the ground (as it were). He warns of the dangers of Japan and Germany uniting regardless of how important the future of aviation is to both mankind and the economy of depression-devastated Japan.

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Jiro is called back to Tokyo to resume work on his plane. As an audience we are pulling for our scrappy young engineer who looks like Harry Potter—right down to the scarf—to succeed, marry the girl, and live happily ever after, but two things happen. First, Naoko has a lung hemorrhage—in one of the most striking and moving moments in animation history (I mean it). Jiro must wrestle back and forth between his responsibilities to his wife and his responsibilities to the Japanese Empire. Secondly, he completes his perfect plane and we realize (or stop repressing) that he has just designed the Zero—the plane that will end so many American lives.

But Miyazaki soft sells all the real drama. When Jiro visits Germany, we see no swastikas; the invasion of Manchuria by Japan is barely mentioned. Instead, we are shown over and over that Japan is in the grips of the great economic turmoil. Jiro and the rest of Japanese civilization have to do anything to aid their country in their time of need. Both Jiro and his wife will do whatever it takes to complete his vision—even if it’s at the cost of precious time they could be spending together before the end.

Most of these slights could be overlooked, but sadly, they all rush to the forefront of our collective minds with the final scenes in the movie. We jump ahead to the end of the war and Miyazaki tells us—what? Jiro’s dream was worthwhile? He will meet his wife in heaven? The great Italian aeronautical genius Giovanni Caproni—who acts as Jiro’s conscience and spiritual guide through dreams—leads Jiro, Miyazaki, and the audience through this final gloss-over.

Miyazaki does not show us the ultimate result of Jiro’s success, and that is the payload aboard the Enola Gay.

All in all, I’m glad I saw The Wind Rises. I wanted more and, unfortunately, I got my wish. Oddly, this is the only Miyazaki movie that could have been made as a live-action film. There is no magic, no monsters (except maybe the Nazis); this is the story of a dreamer making his visions come true in the real world. The same can be said about Jiro’s career as well as Miyazaki’s. I wish him well, thank him for all he’s given us, and applaud him for trying to stretch his last hit into an inside-the-park homer, but in this case he was thrown out at the plate. I look forward to seeing his vision again, but for now, I am truly disappointed and more than a little unsettled.

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