I used to have a foolish (if unrecognised) prejudice against animated films but, fortunately, that was done for by the release of Waltz with Bashir (which remains one of my favourite films). Since my change of heart I’ve been slow to catch up on the Studio Ghibli output and, prior to this film, had only seen My Neighbour Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies. Both of those films are magnificent (for very different reasons) and fortunately, despite some flaws, The Wind Rises continues in that vein. It’s an enchanting experience from beginning to end.
The film centres on Jirô Horikoshi, a famed Japanese aeronautical engineer and designer of the country’s World War II Zero fighter. When we first meet him in late childhood he’s already imagining, through an enthralling dream sequence (of which there are a number), one of the beautiful flying machines that he will design. In that sequence he is told (by his hero, Count Caproni) that engineers turn dreams into reality, and what follows is the story of Jirô’s life dedicated to doing that. His dreams are realised, though, in the context of the run up to the World War II, and of Japan’s national quest to catch up with the Western powers not just in terms of technology but also economic and military power (embodied in the words of Jirô’s friend Honjô). It is the juxtaposition between (relatively) innocent dreams and the harsh reality of the context that provides the central tension of the film.
The tension, though, seems to be felt more by the audience than by Jirô, who remains almost entirely committed to building aeroplanes regardless of what they end up being used for (and it is clear that they will be used for war and conquest). The only thing that can tear him away from his designs is the moving but perhaps clichéd emerging relationship with Nahoko, the woman who he falls in love with. That relationship does, it’s fair to say, hinge on some convenient coincidences but it is beautifully portrayed and subtly reminds us that the choice facing the central character is not just between his two loves but, arguably, also between peace and war. He is not able to have both his designs and Nahoko, and she wanes as he nears completion of the former. If their meeting and courting is too laden with coincidence then their parting is as it should be; deeply poignant.
Quibbles with the early romantic storyline aside it is Jirô’s inability, or perhaps unwillingness, to choose between his two loves that represents the major flaw of the film. He never seems to really decide that designing his aeroplane is the right thing to do. The issue is tackled, and the character flirts with it, but there is no resolution. Instead it is just accepted that following his dream may contribute to a questionable outcome. His choice is implicit and uncexplained whilst, from a moral perspective, being quite questionable. This perspective is informed by my own pacifism; it seems that his decision to continue designing the aeroplane despite knowing that it will be used for war, and in the process neglecting Nahoko, is wrong. Of course the point here is that perhaps those who create (be they engineers, artists, musicians, or an array of others) should not be judged by the uses that their creations are put to by others. However, I don’t think the issue is that clear-cut. It may be unfair to judge someone whose creation is subsequently co-opted for questionable purposes, but this is less true of someone who knows full well what their creation will be used for.
The above may be a little unfair because the film is not to taking a moral stand on the issue but telling the story of a character, and portraying the creative impulse and the power that it can have over a person. And it does that admirably well so it’s difficult to disdain Jirô for his decision, though I also found it difficult to sympathise or identify with him because I ultimately disagreed with his actions. Fortunately the films strengths are more than enough to make up for this. First amongst them, as you might expect, is the stunning animation. This is not just seen in the masterful landscapes but also the perfectly judged moments when our gaze is focussed on some beautiful element of the scene’s detail, either as it exists in the shot or (as with the tiny moths and fireflies swarming around the gatepost light as Nahoko’s father bids Jirô goodbye) or by cutting away from it (as with the delicate flower surviving amongst the falling debris from an earthquake). The stunning animation is complemented by wonderful storytelling, which is perfectly paced and includes enough flourishes (such as the monstrous overtones of the earthquake) to keep the audience engaged throughout.
Overall then, The Wind Rises is a gripping viewing experience telling a perfectly paced story that portrays the power of the human desire to create. The key decision of the central character may be morally questionable (and maybe you can’t blame the film for that, since it’s biographical), which makes it difficult to identify with him, but the overall quality of the film is hard to fault. Crucially, even the arguable flaw of the film is a thought-provoking one.