By Ollie Gayler @OllieGayler
As a career finale, The Wind Rises is suitably poignant. Its message is not an overt warning as in Princess Mononoke. Its fantasy is more subtle and human than that of Spirited Away and is not presented in opposition to reality, but rather woven into the film’s realism; realism that is rooted in historical context through its lead character, Jiro Horikoshi, designer of the Mitsubishi A5M and A6M Zero fighter planes for the Japanese Navy in the years preceding World War II. The fantasy elements; Jiro’s dreams and visions, almost seamlessly blend into reality to a point where there is no indication of a dream sequence until physiological bounds are broken without note. Jiro walks casually along the wing of a flying aircraft, or Caproni, Jiro’s dream counterpart, moves instantaneously from one place to another. Interweaving fact and fantasy in this way creates the film’s poignancy.
In his dreams, Jiro accepts physiological absurdities without question. Indeed, during their first meeting, Caproni tells Jiro that aeroplanes are beautiful dreams and this becomes Jiro’s mantra: ‘He said aeroplanes are beautiful dreams, so I’m going to make beautiful aeroplanes’. While dreaming, Jiro also acknowledges the dreams vocally, thereby embedding them in the film’s overarching construct of realism. Like Jiro, Caproni is based on a real person; an Italian aeroplane designer of the same name, but in the film only occurs within Jiro’s dreams. In this context Caproni can be viewed as an extension of Jiro’s psyche, a manifestation of his aspirations and perhaps also a compensation for the absent Father, who is mentioned briefly but never once seen throughout the film.
Then there are Jiro’s waking visions, instigated by conversation or what he sees happening around him. A new prototype begins to buckle high overhead and Jiro sees close up and inside the wing, noting the strain on each individual component before the wing finally breaks. During a test flight in a German bomber, Jiro marvels at being able to walk through the enormous hollowed wing and we see him, presumably in his own imagined perspective, from outside the plane as the fuselage becomes transparent and the aircraft’s internal structure is laid bear with Jiro clambering through it. This interweaving of factual content, reality and dream content imbues TWR with something more akin to magic realism than outright fantasy.
These dreams and visions represent the most flamboyant moments of the film, full of striking sunsets and apocalyptic scenes of war. But as a whole, the film is visually understated, especially when compared to the flamboyant spectacle of some of Studio Ghibli’s outright fantasies. The dreams and visions are tempered by the real world of the film in which a style much like conventional cinematography is used to tell the story. The camera tracks and pans, methodically establishing urban landscapes or whipping to follow Jiro as he passes by on a train. Colour is realistic but not over exaggerated, ranging from the deep and drab shadowy tones of Tokyo to vivacious blue and green of the hilltop where Nahoko paints in the breeze. Space is used to great effect in framing subjects and lighting is replicated exquisitely. The opening sequence is particularly striking, as the frame follows Jiro’s small aeroplane across expansive and highly detailed landscapes with perfect perspective positioning.
TWR takes an anti-war stance, but also seems resigned to war as an inevitability. There is laughter and uproar when Jiro suggests a good weight saving measure might be to remove the guns from a new prototype design. This sense of resignation conjures an almost existentialist spirit with Honjo completely objectifying the wider implications of designing fighter planes: ‘Japan is poor, but they pay us good money to design these planes, so why not do it?’. This discourse between Japan’s struggling economy and the channelling of resource into the country’s war efforts is a thread that runs throughout the film, manifesting predominantly in vaguely philosophical conversations between Jiro, various colleagues of his and his wife Nahoko. Several times these conversations are ended by Jiro making the abstract observation; ‘Japan will blow up’, an acknowledgement of the volatility of war, a deprived society, an aggressive foreign policy and, of course, a pre-empting of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.
If every hero is flawed, then this is Jiro’s. He fully acknowledges the untenable trajectory his nation is taking into international conflict, but also externalises himself from this process to the extent that he seems to view himself as divorced from it entirely. For all his ‘Japan will blow up’ sentiment, he never once considers his own role in its detonation. He is so absorbed by his love of aircraft design that he neglects to consider how many lives the machines he designs will take. During his final dream conversation with Caproni, a squadron of Jiro’s Zero fighters fly glorified into a magnificent sunset, while the horror of their destruction lies well out sight beyond the horizon. His relationship with his wife Nahoko is mirrored in this process of neglect. Jiro woos her with paper aeroplane games and then, despite her Tuberculosis, brings her back with him to the smog filled city so he can continue his work. The only thing that will capture his full attention is an aspect of his engineering work, whether it’s the smooth wing like curve of a mackerel bone or a shiny metal fuselage. He regards Nahoko’s illness with the same indifference and resignation as he does the war. For these reasons, his passion is both admirable and damnable.
The film’s flaw is it social commentary, which is related mostly through dialogue rather than actual events and therefore contradicts a basic rule of cinema to show and not tell. Furthermore, the conversations about war and the future of Japan are clunky and feel forced. However, engaging with such issues is always a commendable endeavour in itself and the clunkiness can be partly attributed to the loss of some meaning in translation between the original script and the English dubbed version.
Although the English voicing has been carried out extremely well. Joseph Gordon Levitt voices Jiro and it is his voicing that reveals the protagonist’s flaw. His calm, collected sensibility can only be either broken or, alternatively, absorbed entirely by things concerning aeroplane design. His smooth, understated tone is only ever enlivened by moments of ecstatic exclamation or dreamy absorption over aspects of aeronautical engineering. Emily Blunt voices Nahoko extremely well and brings the character to life for the English language audience, while Werner Herzog makes an appearance voicing the eccentric mentor archetype Castorp.
TWR is a wistful ‘carpe diem’ and a poignant farewell. Hayao Miyazaki’s parting message is one of individualism, of purveying your own passion and eschewing naysayers and all that is wrong with the world. Jiro’s blind-eye flaws can ultimately be excused by his pure intentions: his choice is between designing cutting edge fighter planes and not designing aircraft at all (or at best, designing undistinguished passenger craft). In his final work for Studio Ghibli, HM says: pursue and enjoy your own imagination, because there is no time to let the world hold you back. In short, the wind is rising, so we must try to live.