I wrote 95% of this 9 months ago and forgot about it until today. Some of this makes me cringe and I wish it could have been written differently but here it is anyway, warts and all. It’s been almost two weeks since I saw The Wind Rises. I left the theater wondering if I was going to come back again to watch it a second time. It’s most assuredly gone now so I’ll have to wait for a Blu-Ray release, where it’ll probably take its place next to my unopened copy of Wolf Children and other films I’ve picked up but still haven’t watched since getting my Blu-Ray player for Christmas. I was anticipating this film more than I have for any movie in quite a long time. It was an experience that did not disappoint, but that’s a far cry from saying that it delivered exactly what I was hoping for. I found it very inspiring, although not in the way that most of its admirers likely do. Obviously, my feelings about this film are a little complicated, and I don’t know if I’m going to come any closer to clarifying them by the time I’m done writing this.
The Wind Rises is a beautiful film and does not visually disappoint. The color and the detail is as vivid as anything every produce by Studio Ghibli. This kind of look is probably misunderstood as old-fashioned and boring by most Western viewers who’ve had their brains melted by a decade-plus of gaudy CGI cartoons that have set the standard for what is “realistic” and “beautiful,” two words that have come to mean the same thing, even as neither alone paints an accurate description of most works that they’re so commonly lobbed at. It’s probably more wise to study the composition of the scenes themselves rather than the stuff that they’re made of: the actual shots that make up The Wind Rises, as described in the script and composed by the storyboard artists and animators, are glorious in a thoughtful way that neither few Western audiences (or even Western anime fans) have the patience to observe, consider, or appreciate. If this were a film by any other director, no one in America would have stayed awake for it (assuming that they would have bothered to see it in the first place) and few anime fans would have looked up from whatever tween-incest comedy/”epic” action series they’re torrenting fansubs of to even notice it at all. That’s not to say that there aren’t an embarrassment of spectacular moments that demand attention, but those viewers expecting the aerial dogfights of Porco Rosso might find themselves wondering what the big deal is.
Cutting right to the chase, this is a weird movie. Structurally, it doesn’t follow the usual arc that filmmakers are taught to follow or the audiences are told to expect and value. The main character doesn’t develop or “change” in the way that viewers have been conditioned to respond to. The movie is rather long (2 hours and change) and often feels meandering in search of the conflicts and orgasmic resolutions that make up the plot of what a movie is “supposed” to do. We follow Jiro (Jiro Horikoshi, a real aircraft designer whose work in the 1930s and 1940s helped modernize the Japanese air force) through his childhood, into his college years and his first days on the job as an engineer, which takes him across the world and gives him an up-close view of many of the most important events of the first half of the 20th century. We glimpse his reoccurring dreams, watch him fall in love and struggle with the complexities of the turbulent world around him, which seem intent on taking his inspired vision of flight and applying it to violent and disastrous ends. From the beginning of the film, it’s clear that Jiro is a good person who values peace and fairness, yet he rarely deviates from his devotion to his projects or his lifelong goal to buck the system in any meaningful way. This may seem inconsistent or immoral to viewers who believe in superhero protagonists who always do the right thing and are never unsure of the difference between right and wrong or their ability and moral obligation to enforce such laws.
My impressions of the main character: a very kind, intelligent, slow to anger, patient man who sees the world as it is and is so focused on his goals that they’re all he really needs to be happy. This is the kind of person that I want to be. Unfortunately, it’s established very early on that this is who he has always been, that hard work is in his blood and that a perpetually clear and rational mind make up the central core of his identity. Neither primed for greatness or forced to overcome any tremendous adversity, Jiro has always been an extremely gifted person in a natural way that is simply out of reach for most of us. Could this be interpreted as a kind of objectivist parable? Who knows? Miyazaki’s admiration for Jiro surely stems from his love of flying (or vice versa?) and may also come out of a respect for dreamers or iconoclasts. It’s also clear that this kind of excellence is simply not within everyone’s reach, that the best most of us can do is to try to recognize others who may possess it and to do our best to enable them. Maybe that’s a horrible interpretation of the film’s message, one that I’m not even sure I completely agree with, although I’m sure I feel that way about some people, as do most of us, probably.
Don’t get me wrong, most of the film focuses on Jiro’s hard work and determination, which surely cultivated a sense of commitment and refusal to give up in the face of setbacks, which are hardly glossed over in the film’s portrayal of his creative process. Maybe that’s what I liked most about this film. Aside from an early dramatic scene depicting a disastrous earthquake, a lot of the movie just follows Jiro around. He spends a lot of time studying in school. He’s committed to excellence in his first job after college, despite being a low-level engineer with few major responsibilities. He’s driven by a narrow set of goals and little else. This is really inspiring to watch. It also feels like a totally alien experience to me. Is that because I’m a lazy person, or because I live in a world full of distractions — you’re reading one right now — and low expectations? I like to think that if I lived in a pre-Internet world free of electronic comforts or the mass media, maybe I could have parlayed my giften childhood into something useful as an adult. I mean, imagine growing up in a society where children soak up judo and aikido and are better at math than most American college students today. What if your nights were spent lying on the roof and gazing at the stars instead of staring at a screen? Again, this is not the point of the film at all, but I was really caught up in the simplicity of the world that it depicted and the purity of vision that it could inspire in people. Maybe this sounds like dangerously simple, idyllic Japanophile nonsense. Or maybe it isn’t.
As far as the English dub is concerned, I thought this was another excellent and respectful treatment from the folks at Disney and the cast they brought in. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and John Krasinski did amazing work and play it mellow when I suspect that most voice actors of the American anime industry would have hammed it up to an ear-piercing degree. As skeptical as I’ve always been of the apparent necessity to cast well-known actors for roles in animated films (regardless of whether or not they have any experience in the medium or even show a predilection for it at all), the dubbing of all the Ghibli films that I’ve seen in English over the years (usually in theaters, starting with Spirited Away in 2002 or 2003, whenever it made its way to the multiplex near my college) has never been disappointing for me. The Wind Rises continues this fairy-respectful and successful tradition. It might also be the end of it as we know it. Few of Ghibli’s non-Miyazaki films hold much commercial potential in the West: they’re either culturally-specific products of the country they were made in, or hold little appeal for children. We may have hoped that gradual box-office success in the West, coupled with high praise from critics or word-of-mouth, would slowly expand the distribution of Japanese animation into theaters. On the contrary, it’s possible that we may be seeing the end of this decade-plus experiment, which never quite pierced the consciousness of the average moviegoer, young or old.
This isn’t a proper review so much as a general and very personal reaction to the film, so I don’t know how useful it will be to you. It is absolutely a great movie, although it may not live up to the hype placed upon it. And how could it? For months now, the stories about Miyazaki’s retirement (which is probably final, let’s face it) have overshadowed the film itself. He’s definitely an artist worth celebrating, but his films deserve to stand on their own, too. If your only exposure to the world of Miyazaki or Studio Ghibli has been through one of their signature films — My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away, to pick a few — The Wind Rises will definitely come as a revelation. But I don’t think anyone else needs convincing at this point. Well, most of America, but that goes without saying.