Hayao Miyazaki’s latest film is not one of the masterpieces of fantasy that he is known for, but the realistic life story of a Japanese airplane designer from boyhood in the early 1900s to the eve of World War II. Fans of his more fantastic fare will not be disappointed, though. The Wind Rises has the same languid, dreamy tone of his previous work, and provides the same sense of being immersed in another world.
The film opens in a traditional Japanese home in the countryside. Moss covered rock gardens, tatami mats and paper screens, starry skies, and country lanes enshrouded by warm summer darkness are as evocative as any of the settings in Miyazaki’s fantasy films like Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro. The film’s opening sequences give us a peek into the dream life and coalescing ambitions of the boy who would grow up to become Jiro Horikoshi, who designed Japan’s “Zero” fighter planes, still considered to be miracles of aeronautical engineering.
The film is full of airplanes, both real and imaginary, and Miyazaki breathes life into them by literally giving voice to them. A chorus of human voices, zipping, grumbling, and buzzing together provide a surprisingly realistic rendering of all the engine and propeller sounds in the film. The effect is like a supercharged version of children at play, providing their own sound effects to the action. This sense of wonder lifts up The Wind Rises from start to finish, even as the subject matter touches on grown up themes like love, integrity, failure, sex, and death.
Romanticizing the life of a man who built war planes for Axis Japan is a potentially offensive subject, and Miyazaki accordingly spares a few brush strokes to provide some political context for his hero. At one point, we find Horikoshi on the run from Japan’s wartime “thought police,” though we never find out why. At another point, he and a fellow engineer witness in dismay the violent arrest of a dissident while they are visiting Germany in the years leading up to 1939. Later, the same engineer remarks to Horikoshi, “We are not war mongers, we simply want to build better airplanes.” Whether these efforts alone are enough to totally disarm the film politically, the emotional interest and sheer beauty of the story overwhelm any political misgivings. It is not at all uncomfortable to spend two hours in the company of Horikoshi and his family.
Some of the emotional moments of the story fall flat, or perhaps just don’t translate well from Japanese into English. But the most powerful emotional lift in the film comes from the chance to wander for two hours in Miyazaki’s enchanted world. It is the background details that fully transport you, like the watery reflection of the penny steamer in 1920s Tokyo, the fronds of a fern dragging in a fast running mountain stream, or the loops of insects buzzing around a red paper lantern. Miyazaki’s eye for these details is genius, and to see the world through his eyes is always like seeing it for the first time.