Rates: * * *
Film makers are an obsessive bunch. Which makes sense; there are a thousand and one details that go into the making of every film, so being a bit OCD is probably an evolutionary advantage. Similarly, film makers are often drawn to stories about other obsessive people, real or imaginary. This is undoubtedly because they see in these committed characters a reflection of themselves and their own desires.
And so it is with The Wind Rises, venerable Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki's latest, and reportedly final, feature.
Jiro Horikoshi is a small boy born in a provincial town just after the dawn of the 20th century. His childhood is entirely disarming; Jiro goes to a basic school, helps his parents with the many chores around their semi-rural property and dotes on his younger sister. Important character traits are established early. Jiro has a strong sense of morality, demonstrated when he defends a weaker boy from a group of bullies, and his generally calm demenaour conceals a burning passion: Jiro is obsessed with flight.
From an early age, he has fantastical dreams about taking to the air in a home made aircraft. In one of these he meets Caproni, a famed Italian aircraft engineer. While the young Jiro would like to be a pilot, he already knows this dream is cursed; his acute myopia will always keep the pilots seat out of reach. But he is impressed with Caproni and his high minded talk about aircraft being 'beautiful dreams,' and resolves to be an aircraft designer instead.
In the first of several jumps forward in time, the film then moves to find Jiro as a young man, returning to university in Tokyo by train. En route he meets Naoko, a cute young woman he immediately feels a sense of connection with.
As their train arrives in the city, a devastating earthquake strikes (the real life disaster of 1923) and a city wide fire erupts in the ensuing chaos. Jiro helps Naoko find her way home, and the director produces one of the most stunning sequences of his long career. The quake, and its aftermath, is realistically, but flamboyantly depicted, with the harrowing drama of the moment sitting alongside some surrealistic touches (the way the railway track leaps in the air and the earth literally roars before it shakes). It's a stunning sequence, serving as a bridge between the imaginative content of the director's earlier films and the more realistic tone adopted here.
Back at university, Jiro has grown into a pleasant but soberly committed young man, almost entirely dedicated to his aeronautic studies. His head is always in a book, or bent over his drafting table, and his designs are iconoclastic. In rare moments of levity, he sees plane parts everywhere he looks, whether watching birds flying past, or eating mackerel for dinner and remarking that the bones would make perfect wing struts.
Another jump forward finds Jiro working for Mitsubishi, now trying to turn his ideas into reality. Japanese industry is depicted as outdated and backward and Jiro, and the companies other young designers, constantly hit their head on the ceiling imposed by the use of wood and canvas, as opposed to metal. They all laugh at the fact that their experimental planes are taken to the test airfield by bullock, but they laugh through gritted teeth. Progress is slow, Jiro frustrated.
A chance encounter then allows him to rekindle his association with Naoko, who has grown into a delicate and sickly woman. Their friendship soon blossoms into romance and leads Jiro to the one great question posed by the direction of his life; as Naoko becomes sicker, will he choose her or his work? In a move so selfish it could only be true, he tries to avoid this decision altogether, marrying Naoko and installing her in his manager's house, so he can see her for a few minutes at the end of his 18 hour workdays. His wife's condition rapidly deteriorates.
But Jiro does, at least, make some progress with his designs, coming up with a radical new prototype that finally seems to match the vision in his head. Although, when it comes, even this is something of a Pyrrhic victory. The military has always been Mitsubishi's main customer and as the 1930's crest and begin their slide towards a world war, it is obvious that Jiro's planes are going play a key part. Ultimately, his design would become the Zero fighter, one of the war's most famous instruments and star of many film adaptations of the attack on Pearl Harbour.
This seems to point the way to the film's conclusion; a single minded dreamer forced to face the negative consequences of his good work. But, disappointingly, the film decides to dodge this and retreats, tamely, to fantasy again for its conclusion. Jiro's wife does die - fittingly while he's at the airfield - and he dreams a final dream of finding her again, watched over by Caproni, who compliments him on his plane design. Nodding at a passing version of the Zero, Jiro remarks, 'None of them ever came back,' which is an elegant summation, if not dramatically satisfying.
With The Wind Rises, Miyazaki has decided on a coda that is entirely at odds with the rest of his filmography. There are no forest spirits, animal demons, talking cats or enchanted bathhouses here. And, for a while, it seems as though he has hit the jackpot, that his beautiful dream of a stylishly animated bio-pic about a difficult man is to be brilliantly realised. The opening hour of the movie, charting Jiro's childhood, arrival in the city and fledgling career is wonderfully captivating.
But, unfortunately, the longer the film progresses, the more it sheds this initial sheen.
Jiro's quest becomes repetitive and, after a time, tiresome. He keeps having great design ideas, only to have them flail when he tries to build them, a repeated series of events that slowly loses its charm. And there are some odd elements to the story, which take up screen time without adding very much. Chief among these is a grey eyed German entertainer who befriends Jiro, and offers him snatches of cryptic advice.
The film's main, non-aeroplaney element, the doomed love affair, struggles to offer what it needs to, in order to balance the story. The adult Naoko is so frail, right from the time Jiro finds her again, that their interaction is mostly kept to holding hands in bed. Naoko is barely able to function and is so obviously ill fated that there is no dramatic tension regarding the outcome. She is clearly going to die young, and it is also blatant that her husband will largely ignore her beforehand.
But the film's main problem is the ending, which comes across as a copout. You could make the argument that this isn't a war film, rather a study of obsessive tendencies, but my feeling is that Jiro needed to be confronted with the horrors that he contributed to. This is provocative, but a necessary counterweight to the film's overall theme, which appears to indicate that artists must be free from normal behavioural constraints in order to achieve their ends. While you can make this argument, one logical conclusion is that artistic tunnel vision can produce some pretty unpleasant consequences, which it clearly does here. It would have been interesting to see what Jiro finally made of it all, his contributions as an engineer and a man, viewed from a broader perspective.
The Wind Rises is a visually arresting, but only fitfully successful, movie. Miyazaki deserves credit for following his own heart and ending his career as he wanted, its just a shame that the results are so uneven. Making a lengthy biopic as an animated feature is a bold play and, as Jiro's story demonstrates, bold plays often end unsatisfactorily.