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Before the World War that sent Zeros to soar,
A youngster named Jiro had bright dreams galore.
Airplane engineer was his chosen career,
A striving for beauty, naïve and sincere.
He built and he planned and foresaw something grand
To rise on the wind over enemy land.
While deep in his quest for the plane he loved best,
His heart found a partner, and both were soon blessed.
But love has a way of still making us pay,
For sadly short-lived is our happiest day.
He felt the wind rise to the loftiest skies,
Where high-minded dreams tend to meet their demise.

Hailed as Hayao Miyazaki’s swan song before his retirement, The Wind Rises is a work of heartfelt beauty worthy of being the celebrated director’s final film (though he had supposedly retired after Princess Mononoke too). It is also an outlier among his films for two reasons: its realism and its poignancy. Looking back, few films directed by Miyazaki are based entirely in the real world, set instead within dystopian jungles, demon-infested landscapes, or steampunk fantasy lands. Some come close to reality, like Kiki’s Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro, or Porco Rosso, but even they carry obvious fantasy elements. Only his first film, the James Bond-ish The Castle of Cagliostro, could have actually happened (if you consider James Bond realistic), but not until his last film did he settle upon real people and real events.

Based on the life of avionic engineer and creator of the Japanese Zero Jiro Horikoshi, The Wind Rises (which could have been called Jiro Dreams of Airplanes) details his ambition of creating marvelous flying machines and bringing Japan up to speed with the likes of Italy, Germany, and the U.S.  Honestly, I know nothing about the real Jiro Horikoshi or the extent of the film’s historical accuracy, but, even if it weren’t a fictionalized biopic, it would still be one of Studio Ghibli’s most beautiful films. Certain scenes recall notable realistic scenes in past Ghibli movies. A sequence depicting the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923 recalls the urban devastation of Grave of the Fireflies, while Miyazaki’s obvious fascination with flight takes center-stage in a story focused on building planes, a process only briefly portrayed in Porco Rosso. Of course, Miyazaki’s fantastical fingerprints are still evident in Jiro’s dream sequences, in which an Italian engineer named Caproni acts as his Chef Gusteau, offering inspiration and advice while they stroll along aircraft wings. Ghibli’s hand-drawn animation has always been impressive, but not since Howl’s Moving Castle have the artistry and attention to detail been so wondrous, from plane-level views of billowy clouds to the fading vapors of Jiro’s chain-smoking habit to the varying shadows cast by Jiro’s glasses on his own face.

The film’s realism is notable in itself, but it would have made it simply an interesting oddity, rather than the bittersweet drama it is. What sets The Wind Rises apart from its Miyazaki brethren is its heart. As much as I enjoy Miyazaki’s films, none of them have ever touched me on an emotional level; there’s visual beauty to spare, but they tend to appeal more to the eyes and the imagination rather than the heart. This latest film is the exception. The first half is entertaining enough on its own, but the film becomes something more special upon the arrival of Nohoko, one of Ghibli’s loveliest female characters to match its loveliest romance.

Consider their early courtship: like Romeo and Juliet, Nohoko stands on a balcony while Jiro deploys paper airplanes to her rather than poetry (though there’s poetry too). As corny as it sounds, it’s remarkably sweet, as is their increasing devotion to each other, despite Nohoko’s tuberculosis. Miyazaki plumbs unusual depths of emotion as the couple is brought together repeatedly by the wind until they become inseparable, the one pursuing a dream and the other wasting away in support of it. Though it does pay tribute to the most memorable scene from Porco Rosso involving the fate of fallen pilots, the ambiguous ending misses an opportunity to become a full-on tearjerker in favor of a pseudo-inspiring sendoff, which still manages to be rather powerful.

I heard an interview with Gary Rydstrom (director of the excellent English dub), which summed up the film’s dually signified message perfectly: the danger of daring to pursue a passion doomed to end badly. Jiro knows his avionic masterpieces will inevitably be used for destruction in the approaching war, just as he knows his time with Nohoko is limited. It’s the timeless struggle of love; though it will surely end, dreams fulfilled and time well spent manage to be worth it in some ways, despite regret. Caproni mentions that an artist has only ten good creative years allotted to him, but Hayao Miyazaki’s career is clearly an exception. Though Disney’s Frozen juggernaut was understandably the Oscar-winning favorite for Best Animated Feature that year, The Wind Rises would have won my vote.

Best line: (Caproni) “Airplanes are beautiful, cursed dreams, waiting for the sky to swallow them up.”

Rank: List-Worthy

© 2015 S. G. Liput

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