The wind is rising! . . . We must try to live!
- The Graveyard by the Sea by Paul Valéry
The Wind Rises is the story of an aeronautical engineer, of dreams of flight, of the gifts and price of love, and about the choices we make as the world around us falls apart. It is the last masterpiece of Hayao Miyazaki, the famed Japanese anime director, but the setting is the all too real-world Japan during the interbellum period. The film is subtle and understated: I believe it will reward repeat viewings, but dream sequences and time skips may also leave first-time viewers a bit confused. This fictionalized tale of Jiro Horikoshi, designer of the famed Japanese Zero fighter, does demand patience and an interest in the mechanics of flight, but should be quite accessible to American audiences and those who do not typically watch animation. I recommend it as a true work of art, one that wrestles with challenging questions and largely overcomes its flaws. To go any further requires a deeper discussion of the plot.
Discussing those flaws requires grappling with the thorniest question of the premise: how does it handle the war? In abstract terms, this film is a tragedy. The more you know of history, the more signs and portents are at hand. By the midway point, this is made quite explicit by a Cassandra who intrudes with mentions of just what was happening in the world in the early 1930s. I think that character is key to the film, although a venerable friend found him off-putting.
Moving on to spoiler-filled reviews, Inkoo Kang in L.A. Weekly and Devin Faraci do speak to the tension in the piece but I think Film Critic Hulk [and the shouting-free SBT] effectively retorts most charges. I sympathize with critics’ desire for a film focused on challenging revisionists (and indeed, Miyakazi has done so in writing). I in fact have one such Japanese film on my shelf, the Human Condition, which I intend to watch before writing up my final thoughts on The Wind Rises. However, The Wind Rises is a subtle knife and not a manifesto, and both have a role in changing minds. While I view it as a great film, I do think the critics hit their mark when they complain of the absence of the foreign victims of Imperial Japan from the piece. Manchuria is referenced and this is a home front piece, unlike Das Boot which effectively depicted a historical a take no prisoners policy. However, I do think that the frontlines that Horikoshi was so distant from could have been depicted in his dreams even as he assiduously ignored them in his waking life.
Flaws acknowledged, this is an important film. We do not live in uniquely dangerous times, but nonetheless the wind rises.
[Update: Added a positive review that doesn’t use all caps.]