Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises presents a whimsical and fantastic look into Pre-World War II Japan in what he calls his final feature length film. The narrative follows, and pays tribute to the real life, Jiro Horikoshi (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as it charts his journey and rise through the aviation world as he chases his dream to build “beautiful” airplanes. The plot and timeline of the film is driven by actual events in Japan’s history that attempt to ground the piece into a broader cultural and historical context.
The film opens with a dream sequence in which the audience is enveloped inside Jiro’s head and is given preview into a magical-world that will often be revisited throughout the entirety of the 126 minute runtime. These scenes create a sense of whimsy as we look into Jiro’s inspiration and find his absolute love for aviation and engineering while introducing his ultimate influence Count Caproni – wonderfully voiced by Stanley Tucci, a famous Italian airplane designer that continues to feed Jiro’s hunger through the handful of animated dreamscapes the audience is shown. Given that this is a period piece, the major forces behind the plot are historical events that correspond to developments in Jiro’s life. This ranges from him attending college during the Great Kanto Earthquake, where he meets and helps a young girl and her friend in a plot point that is revisited later in the film, to him being hired by Mitsubishi as an Aviation Engineer during the Great Depression all the way up to the beginning of World War II.
A criticism that often falls on foreign language films, especially animated ones, is that the translation and voice acting is often lacking or missing something. The Wind Rises avoids most of this with a loaded line up that bleeds chemistry, though it is not impervious to hammy dialogue and one cringe-worthy moment that everyone will recognize when they see it. Jiro’s boss, one of the light-hearted elements at play, Kurokawa is voiced by Martin Short who provides a perfect caricature of an over bearing boss who helps cultivate Jiro’s genius. John Krasinski and Emily Blunt also lend their voices to become Jiro’s best friend Honjo and wife Nahoko. Mae Whitman plays Kayo – Jiro’s little sister who despite societal norms attends and graduates medical school and acts as a constant reminder for Jiro’s forgetfulness that is marked by his unrelenting work ethic.
However, there is something that is missing. Something that maybe I just didn’t understand. Much of the film is embroiled into a cultural narrative about Pre-WWII Japan that may soar over our heads. I will be honest; there were times where I had not realized that the film had jumped years ahead because I didn’t pick up on the visual cues that would be more familiar to a Japanese audience. There are also constant reminders of how poor Japan was during pre-wartime and how far behind their technology was– the Germans and Americans were building metal bodied aircraft while the Japanese continued to use wood and canvas. There are also references by German military officers that the Japanese steal everything. This stems from a scene in which Honjo and Jiro are sent to Germany to research the metal planes the Germans were developing. All of this was a little lost on me. I do not understand the German sentiment, nor do I have enough knowledge about Japan to understand just how poor and behind technologically they were. This detached me emotionally from the film. I was not connected to Jiro’s dream nor was I connected to the eventual love interest that sparks after one of Jiro’s planes explodes mid-flight and Mitsubishi sends him around Europe and Japan to rest his mind. This could be that something was lost in translation or because I am ignorant of Pre-WWII Japanese culture and history.
Other issues, I found, were skirted and avoided entirely to make room to show Jiro chasing history during the final act of the film. Miyazaki’s often includes strong female characters and leads who drive a pro-feminist and equality ideology. However, in The Wind Rises, Kayo is the only reminder that women can exist in a position of prestige and autonomy. Nahoko Satomi, Jiro’s wife, is the other woman who has significant screen time and she is shown as being sick and neglected by Jiro as he works late into most nights. Incredulously, she is 100 percent ok with it all. She doesn’t mind that Jiro toils over his work more than caring for her. The film tries to show us that she is a devoted wife who wants Jiro to accomplish his dream, but if anything it marginalizes her. Displays of affection and onscreen moments between the two left much to be desired and did not stir up the wealth of emotions I was expecting. Again, this may have been an accurate depiction of a woman’s duty during this time period in Japan, but heck if I knew that. There are also a few references to anti-violent sentiment in scenes where Jiro jokes about cutting the weight of his plane by removing the guns or when Count Caproni admirably claims that airplanes should never be used for violence, though this proves to be his fate as well as Jiro’s. No moral conflict is played up with this and Jiro is only reminded of the destruction in his final dream sequence.
The Wind Rises is underlined with a cultural and historical narrative that may go under the radar for many in the audience, myself included, but gives us enough to still enjoy the story even if we don’t understand the nuance. Studio Ghibli delivered another masterful piece of art with beautiful animation that has come to be expected from a Miyazaki piece. The Wind Rises preaches the lessons of hard work and following your dreams, but ignores an opportunity to expand on larger issues of non-violence and relationships in Pre-war Japan.