Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki is one of the most important filmmakers of the past 35 years. In America, the magnitude of his achievements has only become clear recently with the wide releases of his later masterpieces, like the Academy Award-winning Spirited Away, and re-releases of his earlier classics. In Japan, Miyazaki has long been considered a national treasure (there is even a museum dedicated to his life and work). More recently, Miyazaki announced his retirement, most likely making The Wind Rises his final work.
Miyazaki’s movies have always been deeply intimate. Unlike most Hollywood animated films, largely created by committee, Miyazaki has long exercised complete artistic control over his productions. And The Wind Rises might be Miyazaki’s most personal film, as well as his most controversial. It’s a lyrical and haunting drama based on the life of Japanese aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi, whose most famous creation was the deadly Mitsubishi Zero WWII fighter plane.
Other than a few dream sequences that illustrate young Horikoshi’s passion for flight, The Wind Rises is largely devoid of the fantastical imagery of the filmmaker’s other movies, although the amazing evocation of the 1923 Tokyo earthquake is as powerful and terrifying as any of the monsters from his earlier films. Instead, Miyazaki uses a rich visual palette to vividly etch Horikoshi’s transformation into a visionary designer and the toll his single-minded devotion has on his marriage. Hanging like a shadow over Horikoshi’s life is the awareness that his work can only be financed by the rapidly expanding Japanese military and that his dream of flying could result in a nightmare of death and devastation.
Miyazaki’s work has always been distinguished by exquisite subtlety. Often in his films, characters who first appear to be little more than cartoon villains prove more complicated when their true motives and nature are revealed. Horikoshi is one of the more complex figures Miyazaki has ever created. Added to that, by making a movie based on a well-known person, and setting it largely in the 1930s, when Japan’s military was beginning their brutal conquest of Asia, Miyazaki voluntarily thrust his hand into the hornet’s nest of history. In recent years, Japan’s rightwing politicians, including the current prime minister, have had disturbing success rewriting history and whitewashing the war crimes committed by their country during the pre-WWII era. Some commentators indicted The Wind Rises as a continuation of this dangerous trend because Miyazaki’s film doesn’t explicitly document the Japanese army’s atrocities.
Miyazaki, who shares Horikoshi’s passion for flight, empathizes strongly with his protagonist. The director portrays Horikoshi as a brilliant artist whose work became tragically intertwined with the destructive leaders of his nation, but whose dream lives on in the reality of modern air travel. Whether Miyazaki allowed his sympathy for Horikoshi’s vision to cloud his own will be debated for years to come, but few will deny that The Wind Rises is a stunning movie and a fascinating capstone to the career of this great master.