Film Review: The Wind Rises

Veteran animator Hayao Miyazaki reimagines the life of Japanese airplane designer Jiro Horikoshi.

Over the past three decades, Hayao Miyazaki has ranked among the most influential animators in the world. A founder of Studio Ghibli and an Oscar-winner for Spirited Away, Miyazaki announced last fall that The Wind Rises would be his final movie. Its original Japanese-language version received an Oscar nomination after its release last fall. Now Touchstone Pictures is releasing an English-language version with a different voice cast.

Aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is most famous today for designing the A6M Zero fighter, one of Japan's most advanced weapons during World War II. The film never acknowledges the toll the plane exacted, although characters repeat several times that they want to make "beautiful dreams," not tools for war. "We're not arms merchants," Jiro's friend and fellow designer Honjo (John Krasinski), insists. A German visitor tells Jiro he prefers "a world with pyramids," even if they cause destruction.

Miyazaki depicts Jiro as unfailingly polite and sympathetic. He's kind to orphans, concerned about the unemployed, worried about Japan's militaristic designs, and a hero to the injured. He's also scatterbrained, lost in dreams of dirigibles, missiles and mammoth airplanes. Perhaps Miyazaki thought a disconnected Jiro may not have fully understood the implications of his work, and thus not be so responsible for its impact.

The Wind Rises never quite resolves its war issues, and it doesn't make a very good case for Jiro's engineering skills either. He smokes a lot, is a master of the slide rule, and is often seen surrounded by sketches. (A few of these are cunningly animated.) What he actually does is harder to understand. In Miyazaki's defense, it's difficult to get worked up over a new design of rivets.

But what Miyazaki does better than most animators is present a world in which everything is alive. One long sequence about the Kanto Earthquake of 1923 depicts the disaster as a sort of heaving, twitching beast. Fire that sweeps through the city in the earthquake's aftermath has the personality of a monster or demon.

Throughout The Wind Rises, Miyazaki delights in travel, on trains, trolleys, buses, taxis, steamers, and several models of airplanes, both real and imaginary. Each allows the director to show glimpses of a vanished Japanese countryside—lush, green, unspoiled, drawn with a palpable regret for the past.

Jiro's world is crumbling before his eyes, just like his love Nahoko (Emily Blunt), wasting away from tuberculosis. Nostalgia has been a dominant theme of Miyazaki's work, and it has rarely seemed so heartfelt as it does here.

The English version includes the same animation and wondrous Joe Hisaishi score as the Japanese release. But the English screenplay adaptation by Mike Jones often feels blunt, trumpeting the obvious where Miyazaki opts for a more delicate approach. Gordon-Levitt uses a flat monotone that fails to bring much nuance to his role as Jiro. Blunt is more engaging as Jiro's doomed love Nahoko. Martin Short hams it up as Jiro's boss Kurokawa, while Stanley Tucci is appropriately warm as Caproni, an Italian airplane designer who mentors Jiro in his dreams.

Miyazaki makes no concessions to younger viewers in The Wind Rises, which despite the characteristically sumptuous Ghibli artwork is aimed squarely at adults.