AFI Fest Review: The Wind Rises

The wind rises. We must try to live.

There’s a moment early in The Wind Rises  when the young Jirô Horikoshi is told that an artist only has ten years of creativity. The unspoken irony here is that if anyone defies that statement, it’s the film’s director. For Hayao Miyazaki has had decades of not just creativity, but absolute genius. While he is rightly claimed by Japan as a national treasure, the truth is he’s a global one. Few artists nowadays have consistently demonstrated as much imagination, deeply-felt emotion, and wonder. And, apparently, this may be his final film.

For that finale, he has chosen to make, arguably, his most grounded piece. The Wind Rises  is loosely based on the true story of Jirô Horikoshi, the man who would go on to design the infamous Zero fighter plane. A biopic, especially of a man who made weapons, seems a curious choice from the director of such flights of fancy as My Neighbor Totoro, and such antiwar films as Princess Mononoke.  But The Wind Rises is full of Miyazaki’s chosen themes: a pastoral countryside being taken over by the horrors of war and modernization (as a German man tells Jirô, Japan is going to explode), a tentative, impossible romance (invented from whole cloth, as Jirô woos a young woman with tuberculosis), and the joy and wonder of flight.  In The Wind Rises’ most transcendent moments, Jirô dreams of his hero, the Italian Count Caproni (or, as Caproni insists, he dreams of Jirô) and the impossible planes both design. They stride out on the wings, looking over the world from above, their creations finally free of the terrible intentions others have for them, and able to simply fly.

Those moments truly are transcendent. For if this is to be Miyazaki’s final film, then he has given us, as a farewell, one of the most staggeringly beautiful works he has ever made. Whether in moments of horror like the 1923 earthquake and fires that consume Tokyo, or travelogue beats like the running theme of train travel, or dreamlike moments of wonder when Jirô can see under the wings to the construction of his planes, or the swooningly romantic Jirô throwing his love a paper airplane, or something as simple as a lantern appearing through slats in a door, Miyazaki’s shot composition and art direction are simply astonishing. Even in the film’s slower sections, it is impossible to take one’s eyes off the screen. This may be the best-looking film of 2013 – and considering some of the other movies out this year (and still to come), that’s saying something. As expected, longtime collaborator Joe Hisaishi’s score is superb. Half-whimsical, half-melancholy, it always provides the perfect undertone for each moment. The Wind Rises  is a feast for the eyes and the ears, that must be experienced on as big a screen as possible.

Truth be told, though, The Wind Rises  doesn’t quite have the focus of Miyazaki’s finest work. Jirô (voiced by Hideaki Anno, better known as the director of “Neon Genesis Evangelion”) is, at times, a fairly passive protagonist. Not until he falls in love with Naoko does he begin to embrace the Count’s advice on trying to live. Naoko herself is given little characterization beyond her illness and her love for Jirô (though their scenes once they’re married carry enormous power). However, Miyazaki surrounds them with an entertainingly vibrant set of supporting characters. A particular crowd-pleaser is likely to be Jirô’s boss, a little man with flapping hair reminiscent of a more benevolent Ian Holm in Brazil.  Other characters like Jirô’s partner Honjô, the German Mr. Kastrup (with his love of watercress and Yubaba-esque nose), and the Count himself provide humor and pathos as well.

Even as Jirô says they only wish to make beautiful airplanes, Caproni points out the cruel truth, that their planes will always be subsumed by war. And yet, Caproni insists, the wind rises, and so they must try to live. And through turmoil, failure and success, love and loss, Jirô does. Miyazaki leaves us with that advice: throughout adversity, the rising wind that troubles the world, we must live, we must love, and we must dream. A fitting final message from one of cinema’s most potent dreamers.