There’s a moment in The Wind Rises where Jiro Horikoshi (Hideaki Anno), the film’s protagonist, meets a dream-like manifestation of his idol, Italian engineer Giovanni Caproni (Nomura Mansai), who tells Jiro that he only gets ten years in peak creative form, so it’s best to use them wisely. The advice sharpens Jiro’s focus, a critical turning point in this animated biography of the famed Japanese aircraft designer and a keen distillation of the creative impulse if there ever was one. (Ten years is long enough to accommodate procrastination, but short enough to seem like the years could fly by without accomplishment.)
It’s hard to believe, however, of Caproni’s advice applying to the film’s creator: Studio Ghibli godhead Hayao Miyazaki. His decades-spanning career crosses several different eras of animation, yielding classics such as My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away while building his legacy as one of the key figures responsible for expanding the popularity and influence of Japanese animation around the world. Ten years for a master like Miyazaki is like a drop in the bucket.
Still, The Wind Rises is billed as the 72-year-old’s final feature, so it’s easy to understand why Miyazaki might feel a sudden sense of urgency. This is undoubtedly a “legacy” film, one built to reflect the values and obsessions of its creator. It’s no coincidence that Horikoshi’s story is one heavily invested with an intellectual curiosity and a staunch pride in craftsmanship. It also has planes – lots and lots of planes – as Miyazaki’s lifelong love affair with aviation receives a feature-length valentine.
In a narrative that occasionally bends toward hagiography, Horikoshi emerges as the hero intellectual, a brilliant aeronautical engineer on the cusp of a major career breakthrough. Growing up in an ascendant nation struggling to find its geopolitical footing, he dreams of creating a beautiful machine that Japan can call its own. Though accidents of timing – the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923; the rise of Japanese militarism; the tragic illness of his wife, Naoko (Miori Takamoto) – endanger or elide the purity of his artistic vision, he never stops looking forward. “The wind is rising,” goes the movie’s oft-repeated refrain, taken from a Paul Valéry poem: “We must try to live.”
Like many biopics, Miyazaki’s smooths over the more problematic details of the historical record. Jiro’s elegant designs were used to fashion the fighter planes flown by Japanese pilots before and during World War II. The consequences of his actions remain offscreen, the grimness of his labors revealed only briefly in the movie’s coda. But Miyazaki doesn’t shy away completely: The Wind Rises includes a romantic interlude at a summer resort that takes a haunting detour when a German expatriate questions the ethics of Jiro’s work for the Japanese military. Here the movie draws comparisons to The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann’s famous novel about the moral bankruptcy of Continental Europe on the eve of the First World War, in a bid to provide context and foreshadowing.
But like any great artist, Miyazaki is ultimately a humanist. He has no interest in affirming or refuting political positions, but would rather tell the story of a man who embodies noble artistic qualities like self-sacrifice and tireless dedication. (That the movie has been criticized by both left and right-wing politicians in Japan is also a strong endorsement of its quality.) Whatever the extratextual distractions or minor quibbles – it’s about ten minutes too long, it’s too adamantly obsessed with aeronautical minutiae – that keep The Wind Rises from joining the pantheon of Miyazaki’s greatest achievements, it is undoubtedly a fitting farewell for the beloved filmmaker, a lovely piece of wistful optimism from one of cinema’s most vivid dreamers.