In 1923 a terrible earthquake struck Japan. It picked its moment: lunchtime. What’s the problem with an earthquake at lunchtime? People were cooking their lunches, and that means fires. Firestorms swept across cities, and there was even a fire tornado. Those two words should never belong together. The fires raged for two days. Over 100,000 people died.
The Wind Rises brings that terrible moment to our screens, in animated form, and it’s something everyone should watch. A horrible chapter in history, captured within the beauty of Studio Ghibli animation, and it’s just a subplot in this amazing film, the event that leads to the meeting of the main character and the future love of his life, although she is just a child when they first meet.
The main plot of the film concerns Jiro Horikoshi, the real-life designer of a famous fighter aircraft that was used by Japan during World War II. It is a highly fictionalised account of his life, combining Jiro’s true story with the lives of other historical figures who interested the writer, Hayao Miyazaki, including his own father. Most writers draw on their own past, and Miyazaki brings the horror of tuberculosis to The Wind Rises, having touched upon the subject in My Neighbour Totoro. Miyazaki’s own mother suffered from TB. The upshot of bringing something to screen that is based on a true story is that true life is not neat and tidy, however much artistic licence you take, so the resolution is bittersweet, with an added dose of bitter. I must admit to being a sucker for happy endings so The Wind Rises is not entirely my cup of tea, but that’s my problem, not the film’s. I can still recognise it as the masterpiece that it is.
Miyazaki tackles a thorny subject here, and he came in for some criticism from those who believed he was glorifying something that should not be glorified. But it all says something interesting about Miyazaki, which could reflect on us all. Miyazaki has a fascination for aircraft – that’s quite plain to see when you watch his films, which nearly always feature flying machines to some degree. He can’t help but be fascinated by the real-life achievements of Jiro Horikoshi. But the aircraft Horikoski designed were used as weapons of war. Miyazaki is also a pacifist, and again that comes across strongly in nearly all his films. In an interview he spoke about his complex feelings about the war, expressing national pride in Jiro’s inventions, while criticising Japan’s part in WW2. I don’t see a problem with that. I think it is perfectly possible to be fascinated by and even proud of an invention, despite that invention being used for a terrible purpose. And that’s an issue that is at the heart of The Wind Rises. Jiro invents something beautiful, and then has to watch as every plane based on his plans is destroyed during the war. That is something he has to come to terms with.
Three significant men help Jiro to do that: his boss (who is hilarious), a defector from Germany (who is a fabulous character) and an Italian aircraft designer who only appears to Jiro in dream sequences, which frame his life. Those sequences are what elevates the film from merely very good indeed to a masterpiece, along with the incredibly clever use of changing winds to move the narrative along at key points. Yes, Miyazaki truly is a genius.
A quick note about the dub cast: stellar as usual and all brilliant. Listen out for some high-profile actors, not always in major roles, such as Mandy Patinkin and Elijah Wood. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Emily Blunt are perfect as the two leads, Jiro and Naoko. The aforementioned German defector, Castorp, is voiced with great depth and intelligence by Werner Herzog.
My Studio Ghibli rankings so far, again simply to help anyone trying to decide your purchasing priorities, but as usual I should mention that anything remotely near the top of the list is magnificent and there is a hair’s breadth to choose between anything in the top 10 at least. You might notice that I just heaped praise on something I rank 13th. Studio Ghibli really are that good.
- Spirited Away
- The Cat Returns
- Whisper of the Heart
- My Neighbour Totoro
- Laputa: Castle in the Sky
- Kiki’s Delivery Service
- Howl’s Moving Castle
- From Up on Poppy Hill
- Only Yesterday
- Porco Rosso
- The Wind Rises
- Tales from Earthsea
- Ocean Waves
- Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
- Princess Mononoke
- Grave of the Fireflies
- Pom Poko
I’ll leave you with the trailer as usual. Next time we will be looking at a masterpiece of a very different kind: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. RP