The Great Kanto earthquake rips through Tokyo like the breath of God. Like a deep sigh that bends the earth, grinds metal to dust and homes to splinters. It’s an intense, fantastical scene, visually and audibly stunning, and serves as excellent foreshadowing for the central narrative of The Wind Rises, Studio Ghibli’s “biography” of Jiro Horikoshi.
Horikoshi was the designer of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, a beautiful fighter aircraft that was used during World War 2 to blow up our grandparents. During the earthquake scene near the start of the film, the wind does indeed rise, and Tokyo burns. But despite the turmoil, people find a way to live on. And this really gets to the heart of what the film is about; sometimes the best you can do in the midst of chaos is to allow yourself to be gently pushed along by the winds of fate. It’s actually quite a strange concept when you think about it, and is sort of used to excuse the fact that we spend the majority of the film rooting for a guy whose job it is to build death machines. But, you see, he doesn’t want to build death machines, he’s just caught up in the magic and whimsy of building planes.
Of course, this being a Ghibli film, you never once question the morality of our young, chain smoking hero. He’s a dreamer, bright-eyed and sincere, but he’s also passionate about his work, which largely consists of building his dreams. Convenient.
I have a secret jar of tears produced exclusively by the films of Hayao Miyazaki, although whether the salty solution has healing or melting properties remains to be tested. Something about his work shuts down all my cynicism receptors and turns me into a blubbering wreck so that, much like his animated characters, impossibly huge droplets of water explode out of my face at least five times per movie.
I think it’s because Ghibli animations are so fucking earnest. They commit to the stories completely, never winking at the camera like Disney or Pixar. They are traditional, old school, shamelessly romantic. They can present you with a fantastical, imaginative fairy-tale world or just conjure up beauty and magic from the seemingly mundane.
The Wind Rises is definitely the most grounded of Miyazaki’s Ghibli films, more in the vein of Only Yesterday or From Up on Poppy Hill (directed by Isao Takahata and Goro Miyazaki respectively) than the sleepy insanity of Spirited Away or Ponyo. Actually The Wind Rises reminded me most of Whisper of the Heart, a film by Yoshifumi Kondo (whose fatal work ethic inspired Miyazaki’s first retirement). Whisper of the Heart is essentially a drama/romance about a young girl who wants to be a writer. Ghibli, the masters of both having and eating cake, show us the magic in her real world, and then even more magic in her fantastical daydream adventures. Similarly, The Wind Rises is predominantly about Jiro Horikoshi working, which is punctuated by his participation in a tragic love story. But occasionally young Jiro will fall asleep, and when he does Giovanni Battista Caproni shows up, mostly to continue talking about work, but also to prance around on moving planes and wax philosophical about building death machines.
The DVD people, Studio Canal, kindly allow you to see the film in its original language, but there’s a very special treat for audiences who like their Ghibli dubbed. Werner Fucking Herzog is one of the voice actors, playing a mystery wrapped in an enigma (and he is kind of terrifying). Also, Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a fine job in the lead role, with a soft, understated performance that suits the character (once you get used to it). Plus, for those of you who are interested in animation and storyboarding, you can watch the whole film as a slideshow of sketches. Yes it still looks beautiful.
This is apparently Miyazaki’s last film, as he is retiring again (this time for reals) which is crushingly sad, but this seems to be the perfect film to go out on. The Wind Rises is as much about Miyazaki as it is Horikoshi (maybe more so, considering how fictionalised this biography is), it’s a celebration of dreams and work ethic, pacifism and love, coffee and cigarettes, nature and machines. Y’know, all the stuff that permeates Ghibli, all the stuff Miyazaki loves. This is yet another absurdly beautiful and painfully poignant animation by the greatest animation studio on the planet. If you can make it through the whole film without crying, you should probably go and look at yourself in the mirror, because you may in fact be a huge, swarming mass of spiders, and not a human after all.
The Wind Rises is out on DVD on the 29th of September. Go and buy it.