A fitting farewell for a master of animated filmmaking

by Jasper Yeo / Film Columnist • February 19, 2014

In The Wind Rises, a saying is repeated that “artists are only creative for 10 years.” Whether this is supposed to taken as self-deprecation is unclear, because this movie is planned to be the final animated feature by the beloved anime dynamo Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away), whose work spans and defines nearly the entirety of the Japanese animation industry’s 50-plus-year history. While Miyazaki is no stranger to going back on his retirement plans, one would be hard-pressed to find a more suitable encapsulation of his artistic style and ethos, both good and ill, than this film.

Let’s dig in, The Wind Rises is a fictionalized account of the life and times of Jiro Horikoshi (voiced in Japanese by Hideki Anno, a famous anime director in his own right), a Mitsubishi aircraft engineer responsible for creating the Zero bomber of World War II. Through his struggle to balance idealism and technical design with the compromises of war and politics, he builds a fragile romance with artist Nahoko Satomi. 

This focus on the creative drive and personal relationships will seem dry to those expecting the imaginative and bizarre worlds of Miyazaki’s recent movies, such as the almost indescribably weird Ponyo (2008), but through frequent aeronautical dreamscapes, the director strikes a fanciful ambiance.

It’s best to get to the bothersome aspects of this discussion from the get-go and leave room for the ‘Howevers’: the film is a mixed bag and not for everyone. In the oft-lively medium of cartoons, Jiro and Nahoko are overshadowed by characters who move and talk with much more, well, animation. As a matter of fact, the packed Brattle Theater audience responded to the delectably pissed-off and pint-sized Mitsubishi manager, Kurokawa, the most out of all the cast. As is commonly leveled against late Miyazaki pictures, the story’s core focus becomes obscured. Though the relationship and romance becomes more central, it’s not the most interesting part of the movie.

This is not to mention the social and political aspects of the narrative that a generation of socially-conscious media fans might find jarring. Though it may be tough to sort between author and character voice, Jiro is a naïf to the repercussions of his admittedly marvelous creations. To him, the art of aircraft design is worth the wartime deaths for which they are responsible. The story doesn’t advocate Japanese imperialism, as the backwardness of the country is emblemized by the image of the latest aircraft drawn by a team of oxen. Still, The Wind Rises’ relative disinterest in political morality robs it of a potentially unifying theme. The audience has plenty of food for thought here, but the movie itself doesn’t digest it.  

Now is the time for ‘buts’, ‘howevers’ and ‘neverthelesses’. This film is a gorgeous sight to behold on a big screen. You can count on Studio Ghibli for dynamic effects animation. The propellers, billowing vapor, omnipresent cigarette smoke, and, yes, wind, are all pleasingly chunky and stylized. Even special attention is given to the optics of Jiro’s glasses throughout the movie. Heck, I could wax on and on about the flickering shadows in a scene in Germany.

Visually, the film is carried with conviction precisely because it is an indulgence of Miyazaki’s clear love of flight. During World War II, his family worked building aircrafts like the Zero, which likely drew him to the source novel. 

Furthermore, The Wind Rises serves as an animated version of the director’s art books, stuffed with watercolor illustrations of aircraft and other machines of war and peace.

Though he may be a notorious grump, Miyazaki invests an innocent exuberance in these sequences of what can only be called aviation-porn (locomotives get their fair share of love too). Though the marriage of tone, character, and aerial action may not be as immaculate as his 1992 Porco Rosso, the visuals are a sight for sore, 2D-animation-starved eyes.

As for the audio, veteran collaborator Joe Hisaishi delivers an accompaniment both grand and melancholy. The decision to score the more fantastic or imaginary flying sequences with a cappella sound effects might seem out of left field, but the combination won me over. When you can get lost in the sights and sounds of an animated feature, plot becomes secondary.

If it is true that this time Miyazaki is retiring for good, then this movie is a fitting finale. This should not be cause for lament though. If one famous director is retired, that doesn’t mean that foreign animation is a closed door. Miyazaki is often the only director of Japanese animation who film buffs bother with, but there are a wealth of choices out there.

For example, if you’re interested in further anime about development of aeronautics technology, try the first feature by Hideki Anno’s own studio GAINAX, 1987’s Royal Space Force: Wings of Honneamise. And, hey, after you catch The Wind Rises and The Lego Movie (joyful for entirely different reasons), look for the French Ernest and Celestine March 14. Far from a farewell, The Wind Rises should be taken as an inspiration: much like the hero of the film, you should expand your horizons of appreciation and creativity.

 

The Wind Rises begins a limited engagement at the Kendall Square Cinema this Friday, Feb. 21.