By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Master animator and director Hayao Miyazaki, co-founder of Studio Ghibli and the man who introduced anime features in America, has declared that “The Wind Rises,” a fictionalized biography of airplane designer Jiro Horikoshi, will be his last film. It is also his first and only film not explicitly directed at a child audience, and it’s garnered some controversy. Nevertheless, it was the highest-grossing film in Japan last year, and earned an Academy Award nomination for “Best Animated Feature” (losing to “Frozen” from Walt Disney Pictures, the same folks distributing “The Wind Rises” in America).
The film does, however, handle its subject matter with much of the same amazingly childlike wonder and awe found in Miyazaki’s earlier films. Derived from a manga from the filmmaker (in turn based loosely on a short story by Tatsuo Hori), the young Jiro (voiced in English by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) slips in and out of dreams, always involving flight. During one such windy dream, he finds himself with a companion — the Italian plane designer Giovanni Battista Caproni.
Caproni (Stanley Tucci) calls Jiro “Japanese Boy.” He seems amused that they’re sharing a dream. But Jiro confesses that he’s always dreamed of designing planes. Caproni counsels Jiro that he’s on the right path, but has a lot of hard work ahead.
Jiro grows up in the early 20th century, trying to find his way through hard economic times in Japan. He’s caught in an earthquake, train crash, and subsequent fire, which, thanks to Miyazaki’s imagination, looks more like one of the dreams. And indeed, throughout the film, the animator skillfully plays on the edge between the real world and the dream world. Jiro lives mostly inside his own head, but he’s skillful enough to put his dreams down on paper, for others to take up.
The earthquake (modeled on Japan’s Great Kanto Earthquake of 1924) allows him to meet Naoko Satomi (Emily Blunt), and it’s love at first sight. Unfortunately, young Jiro loses her in the chaos almost as soon as he meets her.
Jiro works feverishly on aircraft design, dodges upper management, and dreams of seeing his creations in actual flight. Through it all, he dreams of being back with Naoko. When he finally finds her, she’s sick with tuberculosis and suspects she doesn’t have long to live. But that doesn’t stop them from loving.
In real life, it was Jiro himself who was frequently sick — one of several liberties that Miyazaki takes with the truth. Jiro and Caproni commiserate with each other that the military is often the only way to realize their dreams. Neither of them likes war, but they accept it as a grim fact of life. And Jiro’s masterwork, the Mitsubishi A6AM Zero, or “Zero” for short, did become an amazing dogfighting plane for the Japanese.
For what it’s worth, the real Jiro felt the war could not be won by his side. In diary entries written during the war, published in 1956, excerpted from Wikipedia, he writes: “… the majority of us who had truly understood the awesome industrial strength of the United States never really believed that Japan would win this war. We were convinced that surely our government had in mind some diplomatic measures, which would bring the conflict to a halt before the situation became catastrophic for Japan. But now, bereft of any strong government move to seek a diplomatic way out, we are being driven to doom. Japan is being destroyed. I cannot do other but to blame the military hierarchy and the blind politicians in power for dragging Japan into this hellish cauldron of defeat.”
Harsh words, especially for a man charged with helping Japan win. Wise words. And not the words you’d expect from Miyazaki’s rendition of Jiro, who’s always mentally, and spiritually, in the clouds. The animator delivers an exhilarating ride for the senses, and a love soliloquy to dreams, but at the cost of the painful, gritty, and undreamy truth. (end)
“The Wind Rises” is currently playing in theatres in and around Seattle. Check local listings for venues, prices, and show times.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.