‘The Wind Rises’ opens with the words from French poet Paul Valery, “The Wind is rising! We must try to live!” This feature is a swansong for Japanese animation legend Hayao Miyazaki. He says it is his last film. It is a breathtaking epic that fully shows off his talent as an artist and ingenious storyteller. Last year, it was the highest-grossing Japanese film in Japan. It was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards but Disney’s ‘Frozen’ won the Oscar. Coincidentally, Disney’s Touchstone Pictures which typically releases movies with darker themes is the distributor of ‘The Wind Rises’ in North American theaters. Like Walt Disney, Miyazaki understands animation as an art form. It is a visually stunning masterwork.
The story centers on Jiro Horikoshi (voice of Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the Japanese aeronautical engineer who designed the Mitsubishi Zero. The fighter plane was used to attack Pearl Harbor during World War II. Our hero is against war. As he frequently says, “I just want to make beautiful airplanes.” There are fantastic dream sequences of Jiro as a young boy accompanied by Italian aeronautical engineer Gianni Caproni (voice of Stanley Tucci). He tells the young protégé that planes are beautiful creations that will be used to wage war and slaughter innocent people. As they walk the span of an airplane wing in flight, “Listen to me, Japanese boy,” says Caproni, “Airplanes are not for war. They are not for making money. Airplanes are beautiful dreams.”
In terms of storytelling, ‘The Wind Rises’ isn’t like his 2001 Oscar winning ‘Spirited Away’ that uses more fantasy to unlock the film’s mystery. Miyazaki sticks closely to Jiro’s journey to present a subtle anti-war message. On his way to college, there is a romantic subplot with Nahoko Satomi (voice of Emily Blunt) that he meets on a train bound for Tokyo during the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. It was the most powerful earthquake in Japanese history. The fires that raged afterward devastated Tokyo. The animation showing the destruction is haunting. Jiro comes to Nahoko’s aid making sure she is reunited with her family. After losing track of each other, they become reacquainted years later, fall in love and eventually marry. Although Nahoko is stricken with tuberculosis, they make the most of their time together.
Thankfully, the script doesn’t focus too heavily on war. Instead Miyazaki emphasizes more on the art of imagination. Jiro’s bosses send him to Germany to study their world-class engineering. He is in awe of Hugo Junkers airplane factory. There is a mutual respect among the designers as Junker nods at Jiro from the distance. These designers see the planes as beautiful creations and not instruments of war. When Jiro sits at a table to have a cigarette, he sparks a conversation with German tourist Castorp (voice of Werner Herzog). He makes a premonition to Jiro that he is ignoring the consequences of his work. He predicts both of their nations will be destroyed.
Gordon-Levitt brings a warm and sure-footed quality to the lead role of Jiro. Since Miyazaki produces his films before adding dialogue, the redubbed English version is seamless. Blunt brings a beautiful tenderness to the role of Nahoko. It’s a bittersweet love story between Jiro and Nahoko. It exemplifies their connection as one of the strongest forces in the world. ‘The Wind Rises’ is an ambitious film from a legendary animator. It is a kid-friendly film with no graphic violence. However, the dark themes of war and death might be better suited for adults. The reason it was rated PG-13 is due to the main character smoking cigarettes. He doesn’t just have an occasional smoke, he piles up butts in ashtrays. However, this was a common habit back in the 20’s and 30’s and lends authenticity to Jiro’s lifestyle.
‘The Wind Rises’ is a visually stunning epic. It is filled with hidden meaning. If it is in fact Miyazaki’s farewell film, it reminds us that beautiful art starts with a dream. Check out the official trailer http://youtu.be/PlaW8-2T1HI.