Like Luxor Jr. the animated lamp that signals the beginning of a Pixar film, the outline of Totoro, the adorable wood spirit from Hayao Miyazaki’s 1988 My Neighbour Totoro, introduces The Wind Rises as emerging out of Japan’s Studio Ghibli. Not only do the two studios make use of a mascot in order to represent themselves pictorially, but they both enjoy a history of critical and popular successes unrivalled by any other animation studios working at present. However, some fundamental differences do exist: separated in language, the immense stretches of the Pacific Ocean (Pixar works out of California and Studio Ghibli is based in Tokyo) and in their use of animation (Pixar makes computer-generated films, Studio Ghibli works with hand drawn animation), the two studios craft highly idiosyncratic works which often draw on the artistic histories of their individual nations. Although Pixar appear to have dipped in form recently since the effects of Disney’s acquisition are slowly becoming more heightened, Studio Ghibli continue to ride high with The Wind Rises Hayao Miyazaki’s most adult work to date. While confidence in the image of Luxor Jr. is waning, the outline of Totoro still functions as a reliable marker of quality for Studio Ghibli.
For Miyazaki’s ostensibly final film (he earlier declared that 1997’s Princess Mononoke would be his last) it seems appropriate that the director would focus both on flight, a returning preoccupation visible throughout his oeuvre, and Italian aircraft manufacturer Giovanni Battista Caproni whose Caproni Ca. 309 Ghibli gave the studio its name. While the Arabic noun ‘ghibli’ refers to the Sirocco, the fiercely hot Saharan wind which brings storms to the Mediterranean Sea, Miyazaki first made use of the word to suggest that his and Isao Takahata’s studio would ‘blow a new wind through the anime industry’. Restating this elemental theme, the inspiration for the title of his latest film comes from a couplet by Paul Valéry (‘The wind is rising, we must try to live!’) which is repeated numerous times throughout the film. This couplet formed inspiration for Japanese poet Hori Tatsuo in his 1938 novel The Wind Has Risen, who Miyazaki dedicates the film to alongside Valéry.
With The Wind Rises, Miyazaki has made a fictional biography of Hirokoshi Jiro, the engineer whose Zero fighter plane was used at Pearl Harbour. Juxtaposing Jiro’s rise from fantasising student to successful member of Mitsubishi with the narrative of Tatsuo’s novel, which is set in a tuberculosis sanatorium in Nagano, Miyazaki creates a multi-layered work. If Miyazaki’s penultimate film Ponyo (2008) was made with a very young audience in mind, The Wind Rises is its direct opposite. The film seeks an older, more mature audience, a point evidenced by his move away from fantasy towards the real. The extended fantasy sequences of his earlier films are replaced with dream sequences which heavily mark the boundaries between what is real and what is not. This use of the dream sequence allows Miyazaki to explore Jiro’s imagination without disrupting the realism of the scenes that exist outside these reveries.
The film opens with a dream of flight: the deeply ingrained desire humanity craved before the invention of aircraft. Mounted on an aeroplane which appears to be half man-made and half living bird, Jiro sails through the air reaching unfathomable speeds over a pre-modern Japanese landscape. Although the spectacle of this dream sequence is quickly disturbed by Jiro waking up in his bed, the film’s reality sequences are never devoid of visual pleasure. From Miyazaki’s dramatisation of the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, which our hero finds himself caught up in, to later aeroplane test sequences we are offered action in the destruction of Tokyo and faulty aeroplanes. These action scenes function merely as visually exciting sequences amongst many. Studio Ghibli’s signature breathtaking hand-drawn animation returns with every frame extending awe-inspiring visuals regardless of their place within reality or fantasy. Within an animation market increasingly saturated by computer-generated imagery, the studio’s continuation of hand-drawn animation is something to treasure. While the film would prove successful as a purely aesthetic experience, Miyazaki’s handling of narrative works to cement the film as a major achievement and its director as a formidable talent (if his earlier films hadn’t already managed this).
This is not just a film about the events which culminate in the formation of the Mitsubishi Zero fighter plane but about the nature of innovation itself, be it within engineering or filmmaking, and the history of Japan within the twentieth century (the film marks Japan’s transition from a pre-modern feudal state to a heavily industrialised nation). Caproni, who appears in the majority of Jiro’s whimsical dreams involving flight, figures as both his central inspiration and the spokesperson of innovation. For Caproni, artists have ten years of creativity before things start to fall apart, while he argues that ‘Airplanes are not tools for war. They are not for making money. Airplanes are beautiful dreams’. Caproni follows this up with the question ‘Do you prefer a world with pyramids, or with no pyramids?’ Jiro’s love of innovation sides him squarely with the former, despite the suffering such inventions cause.
The Wind Rises has been attacked for being both anti-war and anti-Japanese within Japan, preaching pacifism in a political climate adverse to such an act, and for relieving its protagonist of guilt over his actions by American critics. However, although the film avoids condemning Jiro over his role in Pearl Harbour and is instead more interested in exposing his failure to care for his dying tubercular wife, The Wind Rises asks whether we should condemn the inventor. For Jiro is merely trying to improve human technology, to achieve his dreams – destruction figures as merely a by-product of his innovations. The corollary of such an argument provokes the question as to whether we should condemn those involved in the Manhattan project on the other side of Pacific, whose innovations resulted in the destruction of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki islands, just as Jiro’s culminated in the destruction of Pearl Harbour. Were these scientists and inventors not merely trying to create, to solve one of science’s difficult puzzles? Or should we view their achievement as outweighed by the devastation it brings?
The Wind Rises is undoubtedly a contentious film, full of political and historical meanings which provoke further debate and elaboration. However, to see the film as merely opening the floor for the debate of political issues would fail to view the strength of Miyazaki’s form. The film should be discussed in terms of both its form and content, as it is rich in both. Miyazaki offers an intelligent and well told story, a mature work, brimming with adult themes. If this is in fact his final bow, it is surely a great way to conclude an impressive career. However, this leaves us with one final question: who will take over Miyazaki’s helm as Japan’s (if not the world’s) most significant animator?