Once upon a time, I asked a girl out to see Spirited Away (2001) with me. In my enthusiasm, I described Miyazaki Hayao as Japan’s Walt Disney, going on and on about his lasting influence on the industry, the intricacy of his designs, and the deep-seeded humanity that permeates all of his work. To this, she replied, “Enough! Stop trying to impress me!” and I felt a certain fury build inside my heart. To be clear, it wasn’t her rejection that upset me but the idea of such a soulful, majestic legacy being reduced to this person’s navel.
I share this anecdote partly because it may be my last chance, what with Miyazaki allegedly retiring, partly because I feel North American critics are limiting his swan song in a similar way. How else to explain their accusations that The Wind Rises only pays lip service to the lives lost in World War II when its characters bring up the notion every ten minutes, that the protagonist is grossly neglecting his wife when Japanese existence in those days afforded so few privileges, or that the film fails as a feel-good slice-of-life when its title alone implies such a grander scope.
In response to Japan’s recent woes, Miyazaki named his final animated feature after a French quote by Paul Valéry, which states that, when the wind rises, one must try to live. To be clear, the wind here refers to a storm, not change or opportunity. American viewers may be reminded of the saying, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” but this loose biography of World War II aircraft designer Horikoshi Jirô (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) pertains more to the flexibility of the human spirit, its ability to persevere through hardship rather than triumph over it.
Every aspect of The Wind Rises expresses compromise in some form. Inspired by a dream in which he meets Gianni Caproni (Stanley Tucci), Jirô sets out to become an aeronautical engineer. Unfortunately, the political climate of the times all but guarantees his designs will be used for destruction. With the Japanese government pressing hard on its population, our introverted hero can’t afford to show discontent, but his recurrent talks with Caproni reveal a restless heart. “Which would you choose,” asks his imaginary idol, “a world with pyramids or a world without?” Your answer may differ from our protagonist’s, but the point lies in the question haunting his subconscious.
Jirô also meets a kindred spirit by the name of Nahoko (Emily Blunt), whom he marries despite her being afflicted with tuberculosis. To make matters worse, the man has to work unreasonably long hours to evade the government “thought police”, limiting the time they have together. Still, the young couple squeezes joy out of every moment shared the same way The Wind Rises derives poetry out of every mundane scene. I dare you not to shed a tear when our hero moves a small table next to the bed so he can hold his wife’s hand while working at night.
Beyond the romance, though, lies a wider, more philosophical discussion of what makes a full life. How, for instance, does the proverbial storm affect notions of patriotism? After all, the first half of the twentieth century constitutes a particularly dark period in Japanese history. Characters in The Wind Rises routinely bemoan their government’s actions, but none phrase their profound hurt as succinctly as Castorp (Werner Herzog): “Germany will explode. Japan will explode. Forget it.” The mysterious foreigner goes on to decry the rise of the Nazi party in his native land, yet his final exchange with Jirô consists of a German song from the musical Der Kongreß tanzt (1932), demonstrating how one’s love of country can survive even national shame of this magnitude.
However, my favourite supporting cast member in The Wind Rises remains Kurokawa (Martin Short), the perpetually irate supervisor at Mitsubishi. It’s the subtle details of his characterisation that enthrall me, the way, when Jirô’s first prototype crashes, he confirms the pilot’s safety before lamenting the loss of a major military contract. I also like his justification for assigning our hero’s best bud Honjô (John Krasinski) to a different unit: “You’d only end up competing with each other. Friendship is more important.” Limited in stature but ever vibrant in his animation, the man embodies to perfection the idea that humanity and severity can coexist.
True, Miyazaki omits the wildly imaginative critters that have come to emblemise his work, but I can’t understand how fans can view this swan song as anything other than a worthy piece of art. Consider his move away from photorealistic animation in favour of a more impressionistic style. Even the sound effects have less to do with the clinking and clanking of heavy machinery than man’s rendition of those noises. However, what marks The Wind Rises as the perfect cap to an illustrious fifty-year career is its resonance: about an hour after the screening, I started to weep, partly because I may never experience another film from this auteur, mostly because I’d gained a new appreciation for the human spirit.