March 15, 2014 | 2:49pm EST
In 1920s Japan, people suffered life with the Great Depression, poverty, disease, and the Great Kanto Earthquake. Then, Japan plunged into war. How did Japan’s youth survive such a time?
So begins one trailer to the pièce de résistance of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki’s career about a Japanese man with romantic dreams of building beautiful airplanes during a period rife with struggle and conflict. However, such a seemingly morose question is not answered with an equally dark response. True to Miyazaki’s masterful approach to his craft, his final film counters a historically dark time with dazzling visuals of the Japanese urban and rural landscape as well as narrations of profound relationships among people connected through a shared fight for optimism. The Wind Rises is a testament to the beauty that can be found during the bleakest of times.
The film opens with a charming sequence of Japan’s countryside terrain free of dialogue. Instead, the combination of accordion, harmonica, mandolin, and violin make for an Italian-sounding melody that sets the tone. This is fitting, as a young Japanese boy is dreaming and meets the great Italian aeronautic engineer Gianni Caproni on his stunning aircraft. They walk side by side on the wings of the plane, and Caproni encourages him to challenge his expertise in a quest for building the most beautiful airplane the world has ever seen. The boy’s traditional Japanese trousers and shoes are in stark contrast with Caproni’s smart suit and hat. He wakes up, eager to start a life dedicated to the art of creating an innovative vehicle for aviation. This is how we are introduced to Jiro Horikoshi, the chief engineer of Japan’s legendary fighter planes during World War II, whom the film is based off of. Jiro’s story is one about spirit and determination during turbulent times.
The rest of the film focuses on Jiro’s pursuit in building what would later become the world-famous Mitsubishi A6M Zero aircraft, created exclusively for the Imperial Japanese Navy during the war, during arguably the most turbulent period in the country’s history. What makes the film so special is hardship, while evidently present, is not aggressively forced into the spotlight; Jiro and his fellow engineers at the Mitsubishi headquarters eat the same variation of lunch every day, either a piece of meat or fish with rice; the trains that Jiro rides have nicer accommodations up front than they do in the back; several wooden incense sticks with the names of the deceased are seen propped up on the sea grass by the ocean. These respective scenes and images speak enough about food shortage, wealth disparities, and death that were indicative of the period without the presence of gore and battle cries. Miyazaki understands that subtlety is enough to create poignancy.
The wind rises, we must try to live.
“Le vent se lève. Il faut tenter de vivre.” Naoko recites the first line of the French poem by Paul Valery to Jiro, who then follows her words instinctively with the second when they meet each other on the train for the first time. Naoko is a girl with a unique passion for life, a worthy counterpart to Jiro’s ambitious nature. They both share an understanding of life’s unpredictability, as well as the same spirit to face it. Their meeting is significant in that it does not just represent the start of a lifelong love. Their exchange of words also represents what lies ahead. The earthquake hits Tokyo immediately after their encounter, famine and bank failure shatter their community, and Naoko is beset with tuberculosis when she and Jiro decide to marry. It seems as if life had taken a turn for the worst.
The wind can carry turmoil and sadness, which are characteristic of life. However, Naoko and Jiro realize that it is up to the individual to bear whatever life brings and simply live. Time and time again Jiro meets with Caproni in his dreams to discuss how to improve his aircraft design. The curved fish bones that Jiro picks from his meager lunch translate into the design of his finished product. Despite the ongoing war that causes millions of families to be left hungry on the streets, Jiro’s dream has not died. He walks as a grown man with Caproni in his dream for the last time, this time on his own plane. The last dream represents his accomplishment of not only finishing the fighter plane, but also surviving a tumultuous era.
It is appropriate that Miyazaki’s last film has a core theme of flight. Porco Rosso, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, and Kiki’s Delivery Service, to name a few, all include elements of aerodynamics. But this time, Miyazaki does not need elements of the fantastic or magical to show us that that we as humans are not bound to the ground. With his last masterpiece, Miyazaki bids us farewell with a final piece of advice: we can always develop the best of our abilities, whether the wind brings conditions good or bad. Our dreams are worth pursuing because we often have to go against the current to achieve them. According to Miyazaki, that is life.
The Wind Rises is playing at West End Cinema located at 23rd and M north of Washington Circle. The closest available Metro Stop is Foggy Bottom on the Blue and Orange lines.