During its original release in 2013, Hayao Miyazaki announced to the world that “The Wind Rises” (Kaze Tachinu) would be his 11th and final film before retiring. But as any artist knows, the siren call of the muse is impossible to resist; to this day, the prolific filmmaker continues his work with Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation giant Miyazaki co-founded with Toshio Suzuki and the late Isao Takahata in 1985.
If you haven’t watched any of the works of Studio Ghibli, you’re in for a real treat. In this short series of film reviews, I won’t be revisiting all of Miyazaki’s films, only a handful that I hold a deep affection for.
It is somehow poetic to begin with the metaphorical end of the filmmaker’s career as embodied in “The Wind Rises”, a film which seems to be a reflection of his internal struggles with aging and time, and the havoc they can wreak on creative output.
From here, I will work my way back in time to the gleeful childlike wonders of “My Neighbour Totoro”, and then wrap up the series with his personal magnum opus, “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind”.
Fair warning, there will be spoilers ahead.
Part artistic biopic, part old-fashioned love story, and part aeronautical engineering exposition, “The Wind Rises” centres on the character of Jiro Horikoshi (voiced by no less than Hideaki Anno of “Neon Genesis Evangelion” and partly modelled on the writer Tatsuo Hori), the gifted engineer who designed the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter planes used in World War II.
Horikoshi’s presence and the ominous shadows of WWII and Fascism provide historical elements in what otherwise comes across as Miyazaki’s most intimate and grounded narrative. Like Horikoshi, Miyazaki has long envisioned the possibilities of flight – in literal and metaphorical terms – and nowhere does it feel more embodied than in this cinematic ode to his “beautiful, cursed dreams.” It also feels like an oblique exploration of Miyazaki’s own creative process.
Throughout the film, Horikoshi encounters in dreams his spiritual guide and mentor, Italian engineer Count Gianni Caproni, who encourages the young man to chase his dreams of flight.
While taking a train to engineering school, the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 strikes and assumes a life of its own; in true Ghibli fashion, the disastrous event is powerfully animated in topographic waves with human voices emulating the sounds of undulating earth. It’s a magical, visceral effect akin to the story reading itself aloud.
In a twist of fate, Horikoshi meets and rescues the great love of his life, Nahoko, who shares a line from Paul Valéry’s poem The Graveyard by the Sea, from which the film borrows its title: Le vent se lève! . . . il faut tenter de vivre! (The wind is rising! … we must try to live!).
The plot follows Horikoshi as he spends most of his waking (and dreaming) hours obsessing over designing the perfect airplane, which comes into direct conflict with his desire to spend more time with his wife Nahoko, who is dying of tuberculosis. To borrow from Miyazaki: the artist’s restless pursuit of beauty is a form of madness, and the artist devotes himself to his manifesto of “art, above all else”, to the detriment of personal relationships.
If indeed Horikoshi is inspired in turn by Miyazaki’s own life, then tragedy has the motive power to shake them out of their emotional myopia. The filmmaker acknowledges how he had to sacrifice time with his family – particularly with his son Goro, who is working with his father to make new films for Studio Ghibli – in order to build his kingdom of dreams and madness.
What may first appear to be a bleak and apolitical reverie folds and unfolds, like a paper plane, into the beautifully realised odyssey of an idealistic dreamer who wanted to make something beautiful, but has to come to terms with the consequences of hubris and the painful realities of living a full life. Nostalgia is built upon melancholia, and both Horikoshi and Miyazaki have built their monuments to dreams on the vapour trails and ruins of past failures.
Towards the end of the film, Horikoshi and Caproni stand in a windswept field amidst the wreckage of airplanes. Caproni asks Horikoshi if he had lived his ten years of artistic creativity to the full. Nahoko appears one last time to exhort her husband to live, in spite of the sorrow of losing her to illness and his designs to the horrors of war. In a way, it is as much about Nahoko’s dreams and how she humanised and consoled Horikoshi, at the cost of her own life.
And so – the conclusion is love and its capacity to defy despair and death through love of one’s art, and through the chance encounters with people who touch and change our lives forever. The elegiac ending song (Hikoukigumo by Yumi Matsutoya) captures the indomitable human spirit with its soul-soaring love letter to our shared humanity:
A white sloping path runs up into the sky
A gently swaying, misty haze, surrounding and holding
Unnoticed by anyone, all alone,
Soaring upwards, not afraid of anything, dancing up
Longing to be in the sky, speeding through the sky
A whole life, a vapour trail