Is this really it? The end of an era? Excuse me if there’s a lump in my throat. Please, sir, say it ain’t so? Shake a magic 8 ball. “All signs point to yes”. Balls.
Well, as swansongs so, this is pretty much how you want to do it. The Wind Rises, the great master Hayao Miyazaki’s last film as director, is about as majestic and dignified a way of leaving the stage as any of us could have hoped for. If this truly is the end of his directing career then I’m pleased to report he’s gone out on a high note. Like it’s title suggests, this film soars. It feels in some ways like a career summation, with its acknowledgement of past themes (flight, creativity) while at the same time offering a side of the man that it feels like we’ve rarely caught sight of before.
Pre-film buzz, trailers and the like should’ve warned audiences expecting the spectacular fantasies of Ponyo or Spirited Away that we’re in different territory altogether here. Studio Ghibli films tend to fall into one of a few different moulds; the goliath breathtaking adventure epics, the smaller, more introspective and nostalgic efforts, or Isao Takahata’s devastating gut-punch Grave Of The Fireflies (a film so successfully, grimly upsetting that it seems to need no companions whatsoever). The Wind Rises belongs to none of these categories, yet inhabits a Venn diagram meeting point between all of them. In a way, this is the Ghibli film that ties all the others together, and you didn’t even realise it was missing.
It’s the studio’s first biopic. Miyazaki has drawn on the life of one of his own heroes; aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi, who helped to design fighter planes for the Japanese in World War 2. In its basic structure, The Wind Rises adheres to the biopic’s rhythms and shapes like a strict conformist. In execution however, it thrilling leaps over the expectations of the genre, appearing not just as the tale of one man’s life’s work, but as a personal letter from its director to its audience. Miyazaki sees colours of his own life’s work in Horikoshi. The Wind Rises feels bracingly autobiographical. As if, at the eleventh hour, Miyazaki is pulling back the curtain.
Young Jiro’s young optimism and apparent talent seem to mirror Miyazaki’s own gift. The course of the film covers Jiro’s creative years, guided spiritually by the hand of his own idol, a moustachioed Italian engineer named Caproni. Caproni essentially serves the same purpose here as The Baron in Whisper Of The Heart; guiding our protagonist through his dreams, pointing him in the direction of the future. The politics of the time are dealt with matter-of-factly; The Wind Rises isn’t really a film about historical events and offers no judgement or opinion on them. No, this is a paean to inspiration and creativity. And also an elegy for the compromises or losses risked when daring to bring your dreams to life.
Miyazaki’s films have nearly all featured flight or flying, and so it’s little surprise to see him getting to grips with this continuing fascination in such a nuts’n’bolts fashion. His enthusiasm for the subject matter is infectious, and so Jiro’s world comes to life beautifully before us. There are magical elements to the execution though. For all of the mechanical noises of the planes, Miyazaki has employed human voices instead of sampled aircraft or the like. So the engines all thrum or mumble distinctively, recalling – if anything – the a capella backing tracks on Bjork’s Medulla album. It’s a delightful, idiosyncratic touch.
And while large sections of the film are given over to Jiro’s hard graft at trying to perfect his ideal flying machine, a substantial and welcome amount of time is also given to building a love story, as Jiro’s life becomes entwined with that of a young woman named Nahoko. The evolution of their relationship – and it’s heartbreaking hardships – coalesce into the most satisfying and mature picture of love that Studio Ghibli has yet presented to us. Yes, there’s a sentimentality to it, but it’s appropriate and provides a beautiful counterbalance to the more technical aspects of the story being told.
It also leads to one of the film’s (and one of Miyazaki’s) finest set pieces, as a paper plane becomes the conduit for their building affection for one another. It all fits together marvelously, as even this comical skit manages to achieve the kind of vertiginous thrills that action-seekers might’ve been hoping for elsewhere. There’s an almost Spielbergian perfection to these moments. Miyazaki, at the end of his career, deploys a deftness of touch that his live action counterpart hasn’t quite replicated for decades.
It might not be enough for some. The Wind Rises is a long, contemplative film, one that has no interest in placating an audience expecting explosions, suspense or white-knuckle set pieces. It’s better than that. Open up to it, luxuriate in the details, and you’ll find yourself in a rich world of nuance and empathy which seems likely to endure and reward repeat viewings. As for the animation? Of course it’s divine. The attention to detail exquisite. There is nobody better at this. To list highlights invites paragraphs of limitless length.
The world of animation is going to feel emptier without Miyazaki, and while one expects he will still play a great creative role within Ghibli, it’ll be interesting to see where the studio goes next, what path it elects to take. For now we’ve been presented with one of the most beautiful animated films of our time, and certainly one of the best biopics. One of those rare films that simply feels like a gift.