The Wind Rises (2014)

24 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Visionary Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki has claimed that “The Wind Rises” is his final film. It’s not the first time he’s made that statement, but this film truly is his last one, it’s a great one to end his extraordinary career with. It showcases the best of his abilities—it’s visually stunning, tells a good story, is beautiful in its own way, and is a truly terrific film. What else should I expect from the man who gave us such animated classics as “Spirited Away,” “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” and “Castle in the Sky,” among others?

Miyazaki wanted to try something different for his swansong, so he apparently decided to add his usual touches to a biography, loosely based on the life of aviation engineer Jiro Horikoshi who came up with the design of the Japanese Zero fighters, which were used in World War II. From that description alone, you may be thinking this is not a good thing. But the character has no political agenda—he dreams of creating something truly unique and innovative just like his idols. He wants nothing to do with war; he just wants to create.

The film doesn’t have a political agenda either—it’s merely a fable about dreams, creativity, and passion. Though the film doesn’t necessarily ignore the controversies involved, they’re not the central focus. Instead, the central focus is breaking new ground with technology and bringing something incredible to life.

“The Wind Rises” begins in post-WWI days, with Jiro as a teenager (voiced by Zach Callison) who would love to fly but his poor eyesight discourages him. (Even in his dreams, he ends up crashing a plane he’s piloting—a definite bad sign, as flying is one of the most common traits of dreams.) But he is truly fascinated by aircraft and reads up on an Italian aviator (Stanley Tucci), who often visits Jiro in his dreams, and learns that he never actually flies the planes he invents. This inspires Jiro to craft his own designs. As time goes by, Jiro (now voiced as an adult by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) follows his dream by helping to create one plane after another.

One of the best things about “The Wind Rises” is the way it explores the creative process. It takes us into Jiro’s imagination; his dreams and fantasies, in which he mostly converses with his heroes. The film also shows us how little things inspire him—shooting stars, debris being whisked off by the wind, and even something as small as the curve on a fish bone in his lunch inspire his ultimate design. There are realistic dialogue-based scenes in which Jiro talks about his inventions with fellow engineers and others, but for the most part, what we need to know about his passion for creating is told through his dreams and fantasies, which are beautifully realized and, being a Miyazaki film, visually amazing.

And speaking of “visually amazing,” I can’t neglect to talk about the best-animated sequence in the film, which is the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. It’s intense, impactful, and well-drawn, and the aftermath of the earthquake is effectively handled, presenting a dread that would of course come from such a disaster.

In addition to showing Jiro’s work, “The Wind Rises” is also a sweet romance, as Jiro meets Nahoko Satomi (Emily Blunt) years after he assisted her when she was injured in the earthquake. You could say destiny, the wind (which, if you notice, whooshes them toward each other), or both brought them together after they lost track of each other, but they become reacquainted, spend much time together, and eventually get married. But unfortunately, due to her tuberculosis, their relationship is doomed.

The film doesn’t lose sight of the characters, and given its visual inventiveness, that’s no small feat. We enjoy these characters, especially Jiro, whose likeability equals his passion, who we root for when he inventions fail and he constantly has to try again, and who we feel sorry for when people take what he sees as wonderful and original and use it for dangerous, horrible purposes. His goal was never to create a war machine—it was to develop something that no one else had before, even if, in the end, it resulted in the deaths of many, many people. It leads to a haunting, bittersweet ending in which Jiro takes in what his invention has done in the wrong hands—writing about it would decrease the film’s impact and meaning, so I’ll leave you to interpret for yourself what it means.

Disney made a wise choice in having Touchstone present “The Wind Rises” for North American distribution and the MPAA, who I usually mock, I have to give credit for rating it PG-13. It may be animated, but that doesn’t mean it’s suitable for children. The film is very much adult (that is to say, “mature”) in its storytelling and historical content, and I also think the earthquake sequence would be too intense for younger children to take. Miyazaki went out of his way to tell a great story, regardless of his target audience, which really should be those looking for visionary ingenuity. The result is one of the best animated films in recent years. Would this be the end of Miyazaki’s long career? We shall see, but this is a pretty impressive film to go out on—one of his absolute best.

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