Menacing pillars of smoke tower over Tokyo. Ash, still burning, rains down as the fires grow and people flee. In one of the many episodic scenes that make up “The Wind Rises,” Hayao Miyazaki recreates the 1923 Kantō earthquake. But just after pulling back to survey the overwhelming expanse of destruction, the camera pans up to the sky. Just above the shattered city of countless hurt and terrified families, the tops of smoky clouds shimmer vibrant peach, coral, and mauve against a blue sky. Inscribed in pain and devastation, there’s a beauty—a hope of redemption. “The Wind Rises” is a movie about dreams that focuses on this duality. Each coin has two sides, and Miyazaki is eager to examine both.
The narrative of Miyazaki’s film unfolds in an episodic story of the fictionalized life of World War II-era aeronautical engineer Jirō Horikoshi (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). It opens with Jirō as a young boy dreaming of flight. Miyazaki takes the audience through a fantasy sequence in provincial Japan in which the young Jirō takes to the sky in a tiny plane from his own rooftop. The engine puffs and hiccups, and the pistons pump with an organic, bodily verve. It is a marvelous flight, but even in his fantasy, Jirō’s bad eyesight dashes his dreams, and the plane comes tumbling down. After meeting Gianni Caproni (Stanley Tucci)—a recurring character in Jirō’s dreams—Jirō decides that he will instead be an engineer. “Airplanes are beautiful dreams,” Caproni says. “Engineers turn dreams into reality.”
The film is rooted firmly in historical context, tracing the historical development of several fighter planes such as the Mitsubishi A5M—a direct predecessor to the infamous “Zero.” Along with Jirō’s biography, Miyazaki portrays the devastating Kantō earthquake, the effects of the Great Depression, a tuberculosis outbreak, and the political ramifications of Japan’s entrance into the war. Despite being steeped in a rich and controversial cultural-historical background, “The Wind Rises” is apolitical. Even though the baggage of designing warplanes is not forgotten, it does not hinder the beauty of the film itself.
The film’s narrative centers on the development of an aircraft, but it lives in quiet, personal moments of warmth. What binds the movie together is Jirō’s relationship with Naoko (Emily Blunt), a girl he meets and helps during the earthquake. Jirō will meet her again and become engaged, even after discovering that she is suffering from tuberculosis. Although the story is driven by Jirō’s race to engineer a fighter, the movie is more about what he does when he gets back home—the few moments each day he has with Naoko, or an unexpected visit or reunion. Jirō’s life is on a timer—even Caproni warns him that any creative person only has 10 years of truly great work.
Where “The Wind Rises” really excels is in its arresting visual sequences. Jirō is a humble problem-solver, but he is also a dreamer. His daytime fantasies saturate the narrative, lending the film a surreal quality. The line between dreams and reality is always distinct, but it feels as if it doesn’t matter; the film is the dream anyway. As a masterful manipulator of color and light, Miyazaki brings a certain painterly quality to all of his films. Many, including “The Wind Rises,” develop from manga series that Miyazaki created himself. He paints stunning country landscapes and euphoric, dancing action sequences. And it’s not just that the sequences are beautiful, which, frame-by-frame, they are. Miyazaki's masterful manipulation of motion is deliberate, powerful, and suffused with significance—Caproni touches the ground mid-flight, a plane skims and surges through milky clouds, Jirō runs against a crowd.
But the flight sequences absolutely soar. Miyazaki has had a long love affair with flight. Many of his films include extended flight sequences in which his characters take to the air, most similarly in “Porco Rosso,” which follows a World War I ex-fighter pilot. But none come close to the grace and ecstasy of flight in this film. Midway through the film, Jirō launches a simple paper airplane that whips quickly up and playfully pirouettes down. The scene is all elegance, as the paper airplane assumes nothing; it knows it must come down. But real airplanes are different—defiant. There are tangible stakes; flight is precarious. Airplanes challenge nature itself, but with the soaring successes also come devastating failure, which Jirō comes to understand as he stands over the crumpled, broken body of his own design.
Ultimately, this is what “The Wind Rises” is about. It’s about the joy that is etched in pain. With terror comes beauty. With destruction comes creation. And with failure come dreams. What Miyazaki says with “The Wind Rises” is modest and unpretentious. We will hurt and fail, but we can do good; we can create something beautiful. It’s a reflective and fitting sentiment for Miyazaki’s last film. In this light, “The Wind Rises” is a bittersweet but ultimately joyful ride from a true master of his work. Miyazaki had the fortune of having more than “ten years in the sun,” as Caproni puts it, but still, he will be sorely missed.
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