It’s sad to think that after The Wind Rises there will be no more films directed by Miyazaki Hayao. But it’s good that his last venture is also one of his best. I think that The Wind Rises is up there with Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro as a film I will always want to see again. What is different about this last film however is that it features a ‘real’ rather than a fantasy scenario and that it mainly features adult characters and concerns. Those earlier films did, of course, explore important themes relevant for contemporary society, but The Wind Rises does so more directly and audiences are likely to respond differently. As several others have pointed out, some of the sequences in the film also suggest links to Grave of the Fireflies (1988), the great work of Miyazaki’s erstwhile colleague Takahata Isao. Both films refer to the catastrophe of the bombing of Japan in 1944-5.
For his last film Miyazaki focuses on his obsession for flying and aeronautics, offering us a fictionalised account of the life of the aircraft designer Horikoshi Jiro, designer of the fighter plane known in the West as the Zero. Beginning with Jiro as a young teenager dreaming of flying, the film narrative features two main personal stories. One involves Jiro’s fantasy relationship with the Italian aircraft designer Caproni and the quest to design the most beautiful flying machine – set against the reality of working for Mitsubishi to design fighters for the Japanese Navy. The other involves Jiro’s (real and tragic) relationship with the beautiful Nahoko. These two narrative strands are developed in the context of first natural disaster (the 1923 Kanto earthquake) and then the gradual ‘militarisation’ of Japanese society and eventually the outbreak of war.
The Wind Rises has been, like all the latter Studio Ghibli films, a box office smash in Japan and, supported by Disney, a sizeable hit in the international market, led by North America and France, the best two markets outside Japan for manga and anime. Much has already been written about the film and I want to just pick up two or three aspects of the story. First I need to comment on the problems associated with the life story of someone identified as contributing to the Japanese war effort. This film, like several others made in the last few years, ‘humanises’ figures who for some audiences will forever be ‘the enemy’. I don’t mean to belittle the concerns of these audiences – there are good reasons why it is difficult to forget the pain of war. Horikoshi Jiro travels to Germany to learn from designers at Junkers (who have a business relationship with Mitsubishi). He is disturbed by some things he encounters in Germany and is befriended at one point by a ‘good German’ – a critic of the Nazis and something of a stereotypical character. (This character is named Hans Castorp after the hero of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain with the TB sanatorium as the link between Miyazaki’s narratives.) Miyazaki might be accused of trying to ‘find excuses’ for Horikoshi but I don’t think this is a problem as the focus is clearly on the obsessive designer who gives little thought to the military build-up in the 1930s because he is so focused on the technical problems of his design. It occurred to me that the strange sense of beauty associated with certain designs of military aircraft is not something unique to Miyazaki.
The British equivalent of Miyazaki’s aircraft designer might be R. J. Mitchell (1895-1937), designer of the Spitfire. Two British films immediately spring to mind. The first is Michael Powell’s A Canterbury Tale (1944) which opens with a sequence in which one of the original pilgrims to Canterbury releases his hawk to hunt for prey. As the bird flies high the scene changes to the present day with the watcher in uniform and the hawk transposed to a Spitfire high in the sky. The film about R. J. Mitchell is The First of the Few (UK 1942). Leslie Howard directs and plays Mitchell who died young soon after the prototype Spitfire first flew. Like The Wind Rises the story is fictionalised and it is interesting that there are some features common to both films. For instance, Mitchell is shown meeting the German designer Messerschmitt and there are suggestions that he overworks. There is also an Italian connection with Mitchell competing in the Schneider Trophy air races against Italian designers with his Supermarine S6. Miyazaki makes references to this competition in his 1992 film Porco Rosso. Because The First of the Few (titled after Churchill’s speech about the ‘Battle of Britain’) is a wartime film it is more propagandistic. David Niven plays a Squadron Leader relating Mitchell’s story to the younger pilots in his charge. I’m sure there must be other similar aircraft designer films – Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (US 2004) includes aspects of Howard Hughes’ obsession with aircraft design.
My second major interest in The Wind Rises is its depiction of 1920s-30s Japan, including the devastation of the earthquake and the daily routines of Horikoshi and his friends and colleagues. In particular, I’m fascinated by his relationship with Nahoko. I’m very taken by the way Miyazaki is able to create such beautiful and evocative images of the world familiar to me from Japanese film melodramas of the period. And The Wind Rises is strongly influenced by the melodrama tradition in Japanese cinema. I noted the score by Joe Hisaishi and I’m looking forward to watching the film again and focusing on the melodrama references. I found The Wind Rises to be just as beautiful in terms of drawn animation as the fantasy anime for which Miyazaki is better known. (There are references to those earlier films via the character of Jiro’s younger sister.) I hope that there are plenty of aspiring anime directors who want to develop Miyazaki’s ideas and carry on the tradition.
Sight and Sound (June 2014) has an extended set of articles on The Wind Rises which are informative and stimulating. Some of this material is available online, including a ‘gallery’ of stills from the film and a quiz – which Studio Ghibli character are you? (I’m Princess Mononoke apparently!)