Silver Screen Riot: Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises” Is Sorrowful Animation for Adults

the-wind-rises10-1(Note: I saw the original version in Japanese with English subtitles, not the redub featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt)

Traumatic and introspective, The Wind Rises is Hayao Miyazaki‘s magical realist account of pre-WWII Japan as it navigates a seismic earthquake, battles the emergence of lurking fascism and sees its populace wither at the hands of TB. To say it’s not an experience for kids is an understatement, so don’t let the pretty pictures fool you. And yet, preserved is the crisp and distinct Miyazaki visualscapes and a ubiquitous, if stayed, element of whimsy. “In good times and bad, life is magical,” Miyazaki seems to say with a hopeful sigh.The Japanese visionary has talked at length about how this will be his final feature and accordingly it only seems fitting that The Wind Rises feels like a man penning his own epilogue; a storyteller past myth and allegory, finally willing to stare long and hard at the epoch of his lifetime and reflect, no matter how painful that process.

The hero at the center of this tale, Jiro, seems telegraphed in from a poem. And yet his story is true (somewhat), making Miyazaki’s film a fantastical biopic of the oddest sort. How much Miyazaki saw of himself in the plight of the aviation expert can be assumed but why he has chosen him to be the representative of Japan’s 1920 era is a thing of mystery. But let’s save that debate for later.

Jiro Horikoshi is an aviation aficionado. We meet the glasses-touting to-be pioneer at a tender young age and watch him blossom into adulthood and his fledgling career as an aviation engineer. Ever since he was a boy, Jiro has experienced lucid dreams, his nights filled with times spent alongside Italian aeronautical engineer Giovanni Caproni, a figure of encouragement prone to designing ambitious triple layered bi-planes the stuff of fantasy. But even in these dream sequences, reality is grounded. There’s no fluffy creatures or wretched monsters, just the harsh reality of unbridled ambition and unrivaled aspiration. Nevertheless, Miyazaki’s 73-year old hand still paints as beautifully and classically as ever.

Although the animation here is far more realist than much of his former work, Miyazaki still dips in bright colors, painting backdrops so gorgeous you’d expect to find them in a Tokyo art exhibit. And just as his craftsmanship is rich with texture and life, his story is creeping with subtext. To make such a thematic shift this late in his career, away from quirk and metaphorical creatures and into a murky incitement of a culture’s past, surely gives us a glimpse into the mind of a haunted genius.

As the film presses questions of drive and autonomy and the turbulent mix of the two, our minds drift to the writer’s room. Is there intentional poetic justice in Miyazaki decrying the astringent nag that one’s work is never finished just as he’s retiring? Is this film a confession of regret? Of guilt? What has he sacrificed to get where he is today? Or is this merely a reticent sign off to a long and illustrious career? So many questions, so few answers!

And here lies the problem. For all the wonderful questions Mizayaki’s choice to make this his sendoff feature raises, the film itself deals in a tonally inconsistent and wandering narrative rife with teetering pathos that’s almost strangely personal. More tragedy than anything, The Wind Rises earns every bit of its PG-13 rating without ever uttering a swear or witnessing a swing of violence. No, the troubling but true subject matter is bleak and ultimately heartbreaking enough to make anyone old enough blink out a tear or two. Kids though will have all but the pretty pictures soar over their heads like one of Jiro’s aircrafts. That said, it is a visual wonder to behold. Just be prepared to explain to your four year old what tuberculosis is.

Is The Wind Rises Mizayaki’s masterpiece? Certainly not. But it’s an intriguing work nonetheless. It lacks the jubilant capriciousness of Mizayski’s prior filmography, a thing ineffably harder and more coarse than one would imagine from anything animated. In spite of its relative inaccessibility, it is a thing of mighty beauty, even if it is a bit of a melancholy note for Mizayaki to leave on. Like a man looking back at the perfect futility of human life, The Wind Rises is a bittersweet symphony of what it means to love and lose.

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Matt Oakes saw over 150 movies in theaters and probably drank more than his weight in beer last year. Check out more reviews at his website and follow Matt on Facebook and on Twitter.