It is a particular treat to see a Hayao Miyazaki movie on the big screen, and the Japanese animator's latest is no exception. The Wind Rises is as gorgeous as any Studio Ghibli production, crisp and pastel, soothing and stunning. Rife with dream sequences of impossibly layered aircraft against perfect skies dolloped with clouds, Rises reaches the fantastical imaginative heights we've come to expect from Miyazki. And when it isn't wowing you with what you've never seen before, it's wowing you with what you have. There's so much pleasure to be taken from the tiny details that the big screen amplifies: the moths that flock around an outside lantern, the incandescent halo of the moon shining through translucent nighttime clouds, the wildly unnatural colors that sneak in and out of the sky during the final moments of daylight.
Supposedly Miyazaki's final film, The Wind Rises is a workout for your eyes, but unfortunately, not your brain. Instead of his usual delirious fantasy, plot haphazardly unspooling in more or less real time, Miyazaki's delivered a conventional (though highly fictionalized) biopic of Jiro Horikoshi, the man responsible for designing several of Japan's World War II fighter planes.
Miyazaki has called Horikoshi "the most gifted man of his time in Japan." Maybe he finds this to be self-evident, because there is scant proof in the movie. Sure, we see Jiro advancing in his career and working up to the point of being appointed chief designer of a Navy competition, but we don't know why, other than his ability to find inspiration in a mackerel bone whose curve he deems "beautiful" and his wild dreams.
In those sequences, which almost always take place on the wings of airplanes, he discusses design with his engineering inspiration, Giovanni Battista Caproni. Caproni mentors him with whimsical wisdom: "Airplanes are beautiful dreams." " Inspiration unlocks the future. Technology eventually catches up." "Artists are only creative for 10 years. We engineers are no different." (Is the last a comment on Miyazki's own 60-year well drying up?)
For a movie made by someone with such mastery of visual narration, The Wind Rises does an awful lot of telling. When Jiro reunites a girl (and her maid) with her family during the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, someone observes in response, "What a great guy!" When he proposes a plane design much later in life to his rapt team and jokes that it could be made lighter by leaving the weaponry off (to their great amusement), a superior notes, "This is delightful." His courtship with Naoko, the girl he aided during the earthquake whom he meets again later in life while on vacation, begins when they meet by a spring. ("Please don't go. I was giving thanks to this spring. I asked it to bring you here. I asked it to bring you to me," she tells him.) It then consists of walking with her in a downpour and then tossing some paper airplanes at her hotel room from his balcony. Soon after, he tells her father, "I love her very much."
Undercooked characters and unearned plot developments have never been much of a problem in Miyazaki's work (though they're perhaps more present than most of his fans would like to admit) because his movies are generally insane, and they're cartoons, anyway. Who needs conventional narrative building blocks when Miyazaki is offering you a fortress of imagination? But The Wind Rises is different—it's conventional in structure, as a character study, a Bildungsroman, a romance. At his most realistic, Miyazki is hardest to swallow.
Regardless, people take Miyazaki and this movie in particular very seriously. He's been criticized both for venerating an engineer of death machines, and for having that death-machine engineer express a less than enthusiastic attitude about the war he's helping facilitate. I came away believing that the former argument is stronger (moments like the "What a great guy!" one seem defensive if not propagandist).
As for the latter claim, Jiro skirts the issue mostly, focusing on his work and not its implications, most likely inspired by Cabroni's early assertion that, "Airplanes are not for war. They're not tools for making money." Late in the movie, his colleague Honjo rationalizes their role: "We're not arms merchants. We just want to design good aircraft." Jiro replies, "That's right." What a bold stance.
Miyazaki said that he was inspired to make this movie when read something Horikoshi had said: "All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful." Undoubtedly, this was Miyazaki's aim, as well. Both he and his inspiration met their goal, and what we are led to believe is that's what matters more than any resulting effects. The Wind Rises, though, is ultimately too grown up of a film to be guided by such willful naiveté.