When Hayao Miyazaki announced, in 2013, that The Wind Rises would be his final film, fans of animated filmmaking the world over, myself included, took it to mean the end of an era. For the uninitiated, Miyazaki, 73, has been Japan’s undisputed king of thoughtful, morally complex, and achingly beautiful animation going back – in my case, at least – to 1988’s enchanting My Neighbor Totoro. I can still recall in detail Roger Ebert’s hyper-enthusiastic “two thumbs up” for a filmmaker who, at the time, few outside the budding Japanimation fan base in the U.S. had ever heard of.
Thankfully, Miyazaki’s relative obscurity was brief and, before long, his Studio Ghibli films were licensed for distribution – and redubbing, with high-profile, English-speaking voice actors – by Disney, leading to a slew of international awards, among them the Best Animated Feature Oscar for Spirited Away. Miyazaki has often been referred to as “Japan’s Walt Disney,” but that somewhat flip comparison falls flat in the face of Miyazaki’s body of work, which more often takes its cues from the early 20th century cartoonist Winsor McCay’s whimsical and rollicking Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland strip and Japanese mythology. Short version? Miyazaki’s body of work is unlike anything else the world of cinema has ever produced. It’s a shame to know he’s taking his leave, but to paraphrase Casablanca’s Rick, we’ll always have Kiki’s Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke, and, finally, The Wind Rises.
Atypical of Miyazaki’s more fantastical outings, this film is a fictionalized account of a real person, Jiro Horikoshi, a young boy entranced by the idea of flight who grew up to be the man who invented the A6M Zero fighter plane, which would go on to become the Imperial Japanese Navy’s most infamous weapon against the Allies in World War II. As depicted by Miyazaki, Horikoshi is a dreamer and idealist, whose fantasies of soaring high above the clouds in machines of the utmost serenity are, in the end, perverted by the cold, hard reality of war.
But Miyazaki’s film isn’t a war story any more than My Neighbor Totoro is about the specter of a dying parent. Instead, the director focuses on Horikoshi’s palpable love for the mechanics of flight and the mysteries of avionics, as well as his stubbornly optimistic passion for his childhood sweetheart, Naoko. The two meet during a spectacular sequence depicting 1923’s massive Kanto earthquake, portending a less-than-perfect future for the besotted pair.
Throughout it all, The Wind Rises is crammed to bursting with arresting imagery, youthful idealism, and a sense of impending, elegiac loss of the Japan of Horikoshi’s youth to the unyielding tides of soon-to-be bloodstained history. Buoyed by a marvelously evocative score by Joe Hisaishi, Miyazaki’s swan song can be seen as a summation of all that has come before. Based on historical fact, it nonetheless has a fairy-tale quality that outshines anything Disney has done in ages. It speaks to both the head and the heart, and it is, in myriad ways, some of the best work the legendary animator has ever created.
[Note: This review is based on a screening in late 2013 of the original, Japanese-language edition of The Wind Rises. The film is being released on February 28 in two versions: the original Japanese and a dubbed, English-language version, which was not made available to local press. Locally, only the Alamo Drafthouse at Slaughter Lane is showing both versions.]