Mark Mayerson

Writer, Cartoonist, Sculptor

Miyazaki's The Wind Rises
(September 14, 2013)

The Wind Rises, viewed at the Toronto International Film Festival, is most likely Miyazaki's last feature film. It departs from his previous work in many ways. It is a film of contemplation more than action. The fantasy elements that Miyazaki has used so effectively are present only in the main character's dreams. The dreams themselves have ties to the real world, as Jiro Hirokoshi converses with Caproni, an Italian aircraft designer that Jiro has only read about. Jiro's waking life is our world with all its problems, and his dreams are related to his real world concerns.

While flying is Jiro's ambition, he is too nearsighted to become a pilot. His compromise is to become an aeronautical engineer and design the planes that he is unable to fly. While he is interested in planes for their beauty, his work is financed by the Japanese military establishment that has other plans for the machines.

Just as Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima is the Japanese perspective on events depicted in his movie Flags of our Fathers, Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises is in some way a Japanese perspective on William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives. In both films, ordinary people pursue their goals but are caught up in World War II. Both films have a similar image near their conclusions: a graveyard of ruined aircraft.

Two events early in the film are the story in miniature. The first is the Tokyo earthquake and fire of 1923. While a disaster overall, it prompts heroic action and the rebirth of the city. Then there is Caproni's dream plane, built after World War I, which crashes on its test flight. The first disaster is beyond human control and the second is the result of human failure. In each case, there is disappointment and tragedy, yet people persevere and continue to pursue their goals. In a dream, Caproni asks Jiro if he would prefer a world with or without pyramids. The implication is that their construction created both human suffering and beauty. Both Jiro and Caproni prefer a world with pyramids, a statement that creation is worth suffering for. As the earthquake shows, there will be suffering in any case, creation or no.

The Wind Rises is both profoundly realistic, unafraid to recognize the disasters and suffering (both natural and man-made) that people must endure, and also profoundly optimistic, in that people continue to follow dreams despite their troubles. It is a film made by an old man, one who understands that there are no unequivocal happy endings. Tragedy and disappointment are inevitable in each life. The pursuit of creating something beautiful stands in opposition to that, the only thing that elevates people beyond mere survival.

It is not a film for children, not because there is anything objectionable in it but because I suspect it would bore most children. The film is about adult concerns: the workplace, marriage, politics and death.

I'm curious as to why Disney has decided to distribute this film and also curious as to how they will market it. Given how hard they worked to shield children from seeing Pecos Bill smoking, Disney can't be happy that several characters in The Wind Rises are chain smokers. Advertising this as "from the director of Spirited Away" may be literally true but will not represent this film accurately to the family audience. I doubt it's going to appeal much to weekend moviegoers at the mall as this is not what general audiences have been trained to expect from animated entertainment.

Miyazaki has broken new ground for himself here, stepping away from fantasy to offer a perspective on Japan's past and the value of creativity to human existence. This film will not please all his fans but he knew that this film would be his final statement. He chose to address his society about the things that he values and those he disdains. That the film has provoked some controversy in Japan is evidence of Miyazaki's decision to take risks.

I don't know if I'd consider the film a masterpiece. Is it as good as Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away or Ponyo? I'll need more viewings to solidify my thoughts. However, it is an important film, both as part of Miyazaki's body of work and as another advance for mature animated films.

Miyazaki's retirement, while inevitable, is a tragedy for animation as a whole. His exit will leave a gaping hole in the animation landscape. We've been blessed to have so many films from him and his compatriots at Studio Ghibli. The Wind Rises might not be Miyazaki's best film, but it might be his most important.