Imagine, if you will, you are living in the center of the Axis Powers, circa early-20th-century Asia. Japan is fighting in WWII, allied with Germany, struggling to innovate all its technology as fast as possible. Collaboration with other European powers occurs and expands with as much eager desire to learn and grow as bitter jealousy coupled with a compulsion to catch up.
Now playing in select Philadelphian theaters, Hayao Miyazaki’s (perhaps last?) feature film is a beautiful and preponderant animated masterpiece. Unlike most animated films, e.g. of the Disney sort (though Walt Disney Studios is a co-distributor of this film), Miyazaki’s pictures almost feel real- the pacing, the way characters and objects move, the placement of angles and lighting, the deft dialogue- his films feel more like shot live-action sequences of breathing actors and physicality than painted pictures.
His plot is a biographic exploration of the life of Jiro Horikoshi, an aeronautics engineer who gains employment working for the Japanese military indirectly, contracted through a private engineering firm competing with international talent to up the ante of militaristic aeronautics capabilities. This occupational story line weaves through the story of his marriage as well, a bittersweet tale beginning with an act of kind heroism in Horikoshi’s adolescence. These narrations are not linear, however, imbued with fantastical images and scenes of Horikoshi’s mind burgeoning beyond the barriers of sight and sound, inspired by a muse of sorts, inspiration in the form of an (also Axis-powered) Italian flight engineer of international fame circa the 1920s and 1930s. Time is fractured as well, in these sequences, gaining glimpses of Horikoshi’s future and past, interspersed within moments of most significant life-meaning.
“The Wind Rises” resounds with the eternality of knowledge and science. Miyazaki reminds us with his characteristic animated dexterity how knowledge gained through research and the empirical method transcend time and space. Perhaps only within this filmic medium of artistic expression can we as viewers garner so pristine a vantage point. His dreamscapes entwine throughout the narrative thrust like portals through sand dunes of time. Horikoshi longs to achieve supersonic, super-convenient, streamlined flight; yet such goals are a double-edged sword. Japan was an Axis power, allied closely with Germany and Italy, whose own famous Italian engineer figures prominently in Horikoshi’s ongoing life and career development. Japan’s moral debasement and WWII-era acts of atrocity soon come to light, yet figure very subtly within the larger narration of the film, as we also see Horikoshi and colleagues tour the technological bases of a Germany attempting to dominate and destroy all of Europe.
The beauty of Miyazaki’s artistry cannot be overstated; the dreams display a level of creativity and yearning rarely seen in animated film. They are paeans to the human desire to break bounds of human thought and ability, to develop powers via the mind using the elements of earth to move beyond our physical confines. Planes as destruction, even unto today- but also for joy, for artistry- for climbing heights of human knowledge to apprehend principles of spatial design…
Whichever way one interprets Miyazaki’s many levels of meaning, his is an extraordinary film.