In a dream sequence, aeronautical engineer Giovanni Battista Caproni (Stanley Tucci) tells aspiring plane maker Jirô Horikoshi (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) that artists only have 10 years of creativity, so use them wisely.
Such is not the case for filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki. After 11 feature films spanning five decades, the animator behind three Oscar nominations and one win says farewell to the directing chair. Long past his 10 years of creativity, ending it all with the splendidly made “The Wind Rises” (which was nominated this year for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature) still feels like a tragedy.
The Victorian-era, steampunk, Japanese history, nature, pacifism and feminism — Miyazaki’s portfolio circles the same topics, and “The Wind Rises” hits his usual marks with the maturity of an animator who began his career in the 1960s. In an especially intriguing turn for the director, he depicts a fictionalized account of Jirô Horikoshi, the Japanese designer of major aircraft used during World War II. Jirô sees himself as an artist, but he learns the sky is not the limit when economic downfall, natural disasters and military demands set the agenda. Like his mentor says, planes are not for war; they should unite the world. But history is often unkind to idealists.
While traveling for his company, Horikoshi reunites with someone he once saved during an earthquake several years earlier, Naoko Satomi (Emily Blunt). Suddenly, Horikoshi discovers a world beyond work and embarks on something just as challenging as creating a fast plane in a country 20 years behind its Western counterparts. As the world battlefield approaches, Horikoshi must also fight for love at home, as Satomi’s tuberculosis worsens.
Miyazaki’s name might not sound familiar to American audiences, but his films top the Japanese box office in ways only a few American blockbusters can match. “Spirited Away” beat out “Titanic” and “Howl’s Moving Castle” rose above “Avatar”. In those films — along with “Princess Mononoke” (No. 8 at the box office), “Castle in the Sky” and “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” — Miyazaki coupled industrialism with Eastern mythology in adult-themed animations that are equal parts sci-fi, fantasy, spiritual and historical. Meanwhile, child-fare like “Ponyo” (just behind “Avatar” in the box office rankings) and critical favorite “My Neighbor Totoro” (look it up, you’ve probably seen a Totoro stuffed animal before) relish in the joy and innocence of fantasy characters exploring the world carefree. A PG-13 animated film, “The Wind Rises” enjoys childish moments of glee, but often follows those with the violent realism from which Miyazaki never shies away.
When an earthquake rattles Tokyo, buildings sway like an immense ocean wave. Calling Miyazaki’s work anime is a crass label at best, and this moment reveals the folly behind such an inaccurate description. Horikoshi often saunters into flights of fancy, but his return feels as harsh as young Ofelia’s life in “Pan’s Labyrinth” –– victory and joy only after a lifetime of suffering. “The Wind Rises” might be more modest than many of his more sci-fi based fair, but political implications reach farther than any plane ever will.
Like most of his films, no clear villain emerges. Another war is about to hit the world stage, but any viewer’s desire for a nemesis (often a Western film trait) to punch in the third act goes unsatisfied. Like all his other films, “The Wind Rises” cares more about cultural and political institutions than evil individuals.
But just as Miyazaki resists the urge to provide viewers an easy villain to hate — thus an easy solution to reach — he remains an eternal optimist. Pollution, war and patriarchy might tear his beloved country apart, but the enduring power of creativity always wins. In what J.R.R. Tolkien calls “sub-creation” in his essay, “On Fairy-Stories”, we all recreate the world through the stories — or more broadly the art — we create. Just as the world came to be, we partake in a process beyond our limited lives by reconstructing — imperfectly as the process may be — a new world around us.
Horikoshi attempts to rebuild the world — at least the world of flight in his control — but a horrific war perverts his vision. Luckily, the seasons of change bring with them hope. This is far from a simple solution. “The Wind Rises” allows us all to reevaluate how we demonize any generation. In place of solutions easy for the moment, we must ask complex questions before acting. Progress sometimes breaks the sound barrier, but it often moves like a wooden plane in a metal world.
Few filmmakers create with Miyazaki’s conviction, and even fewer will follow in his giant, eco-friendly footsteps. “The Wind Rises” is a sad film indeed. It marks a blemish on world history. It highlights a love overshadowed by pain. And it closes the book on one of the world’s best directors.
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