This review is part of a series of the best of the decade. You can read the other entries in the list by clicking this link. This review contains full spoilers for The Wind Rises and I recommend watching before reading this.
It’s hard to do something like pick a ‘favourite Ghibli’ film, because ranking them seems pointless when they all excel at producing the very different things they offer. But if I’m pressed for it, I’d have to say my two favourite Ghibli productions are Ponyo and The Wind Rises. Ponyo, Miyazaki’s take on The Little Mermaid, is a film that creates something of a visceral childlike experience. It perfectly captures that joy and wonder of exploration and the innocence of the shared connection between Sosuke and Ponyo. It does so in a way similar to My Neighbour Totoro, albeit with a far greater visual range and imagination. The Wind Rises, on the other hand, works to create a more nuanced exploration of the creative experience. Although now confirmed to not be Miyazaki’s final film, it still perfectly works as a swan-song for his career by being a work that turns not outwards to a magical world, but inwards to the creator.
In The Wind Rises, that creator is Jiro Horikoshi, the real life designer of the Japanese Zero Bomber, most famously used in kamikaze missions near the end of the war. The film begins in Jiro’s dreams and revisits them frequently, positing his creation of the Zero bomber as fulfilment of his childhood fantasy. For many critics, The Wind Rises’ celebration of Horikoshi and his creation speaks to a film that, while perhaps not overly patriotic, is at least severely uncritical of Japanese actions during World War Two. But to say the film ignores the war is to wilfully gloss over the film’s subtext.
Jiro is perhaps Miyazaki’s best written character, and the film itself bends around balancing his strengths and his flaws. Jiro is a tragic figure; both a stalwart of decency in a decaying world and someone incredibly naïve, too wrapped up in his own dreams and work to realise the consequences of his own actions. The war is present in The Wind Rises, constantly lurking in the background and creeping slowly into Jiro’s life and dreams. However, he often chooses to ignore it. The first proper example of this comes when Jiro attempts to give the starving children his sponge cake but is rejected. His friend later explains that Japan’s poverty is a direct result of their work, but Jiro never really attempts to do anything about it. He can’t even engage in the dialogue; when Caproni asks him if he’d rather have a world with or without pyramids, Jiro replies that he wants to create beautiful airplanes. At the film’s climax he realises what his planes have done, but by then it’s too late. He’s already chosen to follow his dreams without considering the cost of his work. Caproni’s question about the pyramids seems to be the crucial question of the film, but in refusing to engage in it, Jiro turns it from an active question to a passive one – not of the active creation of human suffering in exchange for art, but of the creation of art in the face of human suffering.
Jiro attempts to escape reality in the Karuizawa resort where he meets his future wife Naoko. Even there he finds it impossible to fully get away from talk of the war. The German man he meets there warns him of Japan’s coming destruction and calls out the resort as ‘a good place to escape bad things’. Jiro is constantly reminded of his own rejection of reality by characters older and more mature than him, but refuses to take their message on board. In this set piece, however, the film does manage to show promise in his ideas. The scene where he throws the paper planes to Naoko manages to demonstrate Caproni and Jiro’s dreams of creating beautiful machines that bring people together. Jiro’s dreams aren’t inherently flawed, he’s just been born into the wrong period for them, something he cannot acknowledge.
This pattern of naivety follows into his relationship with Naoko as well. The relationship between the two of them is something that is communicated mostly wordlessly, with the motif of the wind becoming a symbol of their love. The two share little in terms of words, but their connection is highlighted in the breeze – something most clearly telegraphed in their initial meetings and in Jiro’s realisation of her death. It’s perhaps one of the shallower elements of the film, but it again works to highlight the contradictions within Jiro. He and Naoko are clearly in love, and they both put their life in danger to see each other. But Jiro again takes the stance of wilful ignorance when it comes to Naoko’s illness. He refuses to send her back to the clinic; he refuses to give up his work to spend time with her and he refuses to give up smoking in front of her when he’s stressed. His blindness, then, is not simply naïve but also selfish. When Naoko goes off to die, she leaves when Jiro is at work. Mrs. Kurokawa tells Jiro’s sister that she does so because Naoko didn’t want him to see her become sick. Naoko knows that Jiro is incapable of handling reality, and so continues to shield him from it, even in her death.
Miyazaki’s first idea for the film’s ending was to have Naoko say “Come” in the dream, while in the final cut, she says the opposite, telling him to “Live his life”. I have seen people who would prefer the original ending, with Jiro being beckoned into the afterlife. But such a cruel ending seems unbefitting for Jiro’s crime. Jiro’s true punishment isn’t one that is exacted upon him by the world, it’s one he creates for himself. The vandalisation of his design into a war machine and the death of his wife are actions he is complacent in and while not being responsible for either, his naivety permits them. Naoko telling Jiro to live his life is maybe kinder to him, but it fits with her character’s protectiveness towards him, while not allowing him to live completely unaware of the consequences of his actions.
Perhaps another reason why Miyazaki refuses to be too harsh on Jiro is because the film’s ethos on the creative experience is that it is necessarily filled with contradictions. Caproni opens the film by saying that “Airplanes are beautiful dreams” but closes it with “Airplanes are cursed dreams”. Neither is incorrect. Caproni dreams of creating passenger planes but is forced by his government to send them to war. Still, before he does, he stuffs his bomber full of his family and friends, as well as the whole village that helped create the plane (the visual references to Porco Rosso abound in this film). Caproni has to create his beautiful dream within the restrictions of the curse. It’s similar to Jiro, whose planes incorporate the beauty of nature and his childhood visions within their design but are ultimately destined for destruction at the hands of the Japanese war machine. It’s perhaps for this reason that the sound effects of the planes are made mostly with human voices – it manages to capture the feeling that the machines are almost natural creations that have sprung forth from their creator’s dreams. But in sharing the style of sound effects with the earthquake that forewarns of the coming destruction, the sound design takes on a new perspective. The planes now become simultaneously voices of humanity and destruction.
The Wind Rises may not have the simple beauty of some of Miyazaki’s other films. In fact, set mostly in offices and houses, it’s often difficult to see the beauty in it at all. But this makes its rare appearances stand out all the more. Jiro’s vision is beautiful, but his attempts to make his dream into a reality conflict with the world around him. The creative vision cannot exist outside its context, and Jiro’s dismissal of the context around which he creates comes at the expense of his happiness. It might be dismal to think that the message of the film is simply that pure art cannot exist outside of dreams, but I think that’s another reason why the ending works so well. The final words are not those of despair, but of hope, hope for a future where Jiro’s art can exist without corruption. The Wind Rises does not condone his creation, but it sees promise within the creator.