(Disclosure alert: I saw this film with subtitles, so I can’t comment on the quality of the English dubbing.)
I’m a few days from my screening of The Wind Rises and I still don’t know what to think of it. It doesn’t quite rank among the best of director Hayao Miyazaki’s work, though it certainly possesses his patented lyricism, as well as a boundless imagination reined in by a sure and steady vision. As his final film before bowing out of a legendary career, it certainly hits all the right notes. But it also possesses a troubling tendency to navel gaze, when its meditative power turns a little too far inward. As such, it feels like a movie you respect and admire, but always pass over in favor of the master’s other brilliant films.
The early scenes affirm Miyazaki’s mastery of tone while preserving a sense of mystery about this world. We’re twenty minutes in before we know whether we’re watching the past, the future, or one of the director’s seemingly infinite alternate universes. As it turns out, we’re in the past, on Earth, following the life path of Jiro Horikoshi as he grows from a small boy into a man. He’s destined to become one of the world’s greatest airplane designers, a beautiful dream marred by the use of his creations in wartime. (The Mitsubishi Zero was one of his.)
The Wind Rises devotes itself to the joy of his dream, as well as the realities both wondrous and horrifying that arise because of it. It also centers on his life-long romance with his wife Naoko, suffering from tuberculosis but a devoted partner all the same. It’s very sweet and visually gorgeous, which we expect from this filmmaker. He wants to keep things on the down-low here, far more than many of his other works. Some of his most stunning qualities are thus absent, such as the sight of his visions transforming in front of our eyes. This feels much more grounded, from someone who prefers peace and serenity to open drama.
On that level, it succeeds admirably, though it never moves particularly fast and you need to be in a meditative state of mind before watching it. Earlier Miyazaki films could get by on sheer wonder. By toning it down, The Wind Rises requires you to deal with a very slow pace, and an ability to enjoy the ride rather than look forward to the destination. The modesty of that effort belies the care and devotion behind it, coming from a filmmaker who has nothing left to prove and simply wants to bow out with all the grace and dignity he can muster.
At the same time, however, you sense a fair amount of missed opportunity, something that might be harder to forgive from a less accomplished filmmaker. He often glosses over the unintentional horrors his protagonist creates, and his desire to remain poetic sometimes allows a certain clinical distance to creep in. We feel the loss most acutely in Horikoshi’s relationship with his wife, which connects as elegant concepts rather than a real human connection. But it also crops up in his view of airplanes as living dreams, a gorgeous concept that nonetheless can’t pull on our hearts the way we want it to.
This isn’t anything new for Miyazaki, of course. His unique sensibilities are well established by now, and The Wind Rises is nothing if not an affectionate affirmation of their power. Maybe it’s best that he leaves us with a soft good-bye rather than a blaze of glory. Otherwise, we might feel the loss all the more. As it stands, The Wind Rises mostly makes us glad that this man could do his thing so well for so long. Cinema has lost one of its bright lights: settling in to a well-earned retirement and leaving this admirable effort to give us one last flourish on his behalf.