It's sad that so much controversy has swirled around Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises. The legendary Studio Ghibli director, who has entertained millions for years and changed the face of animation in more ways than one can count, deserves to have his apparent swan song given our full attention, since it marks a clear and obvious coda to his career. Despite the outrage by some that the film glosses over Japan's actions during WWII, The Wind Rises is foremost a final, personal look at the nature of creativity, the limitless value of imagination, and the glory of flight.
Miyazaki's love of aeronautics and fascination with flight has long been obvious, captured beautifully in everything from Nausicaa Valley of the Wind, Porco Rossi, and Kiki's Delivery Service. But unlike those fantastical tales, The Wind Rises is a grounded, real life biopic with swaths of surreal imagery that his loyal fans will immediately recognize. The story offers a fictionalized account of the life of Jiro Horikoshi, designer of Japan's Zero fighter plane, flown during WWII. But when we first meet him, Jiro is simply a young man with a love of planes and a desire to be a pilot. He looks up to the famed Italian engineer Giovanni Caproni, and is visited by him in his dreams often. In that dreamscape, surrounded by giant ships of unfathomable design, Caproni convinces Jiro that designing aircraft is his true calling. Filled with the desire to be helpful to his country during its need for brilliant and innovative minds, Jiro goes to university as a builder rather than a flyer.
While there aren’t much in the way of big action sequences, one depicts the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, the deadliest quake in Japan's history. Jiro was in the center of it, and during the evacuation meets Naoko, a woman who would come to be very important to him in time. But he's young and obsessed with his work, and it takes some time to realize just how much she means to him. With war on the horizon, though, Jiro focuses his energies on what would become his masterpiece, the Mitsubishi A5M Zero fighter.
Much of the first film plays out in straight forward, low key terms, with a heavy emphasis on the actual designs and the artistry behind them. Despite the eventual purpose behind these planes, Jiro sees himself as an artist, and perhaps in a reflection of his own career, Miyazaki portrays him as such. It's easy to see the correlation between Miyazaki and Jiri’s fierce devotion to their craft, along with the propensity for others to misunderstand their work. That's also why it's a little frustrating to have others criticizing Miyazaki for his depiction of Jiro as an honorable man who just happens to be creating weapons of war. The issue is actually tackled head on as Jiro works in a world where his work, designed and built out of love, is frequently co-opted by a government that only sees them as instruments of death. The second half of the film turns on a dime and becomes almost entirely a romance as Jiro and Naoko reunite. While the film always connects as an intriguing biopic of a man few outside of Japan know, the love story is sweeping, heartbreaking stuff. Their love, depicted in quiet terms for the most part, is short, complicated, and yet beautifully tender. She changes Jiro in all of the ways that truly matter, forcing him to embrace a world beyond just his work desk. On an emotional level it's perhaps the finest work of Miyazaki's career.
Miyazaki has never been one to shy away from politics or using his films to express his opinions on Japan's complicated history, one can look at his recent From Up on Poppy Hill as example, even though he knew it would cause some to deconstruct his work until their spirit no longer existed. He's talked about it many times in the past, and perhaps The Wind Rises is his final word on the issue; a glorious, final act of defiance proving that his films will always soar to the greatest heights.