|Picture c/o StudioCanal|
“The Wind is rising. You must try to live!”
It is easy to underestimate the intense passion that is generated by the surreal fantasy films that have emerged from Japan’s Studio Ghibli over the past two decades. For young children and ageing hipsters alike, films such as My Neighbour Totoro, Spirited Away and (personal favourite) Ponyo have provided a beautiful counterpoint to the saccharine and patriarchal Disney canon and allowed an insight into Japanese mythology. The man who has garnered the most dedicated following within the company has easily been Hayao Miyazaki who has just released his swansong with The Wind Rises.
Breaking away from his usual narratives of magical sprites and fantasy worlds, Miyazaki’s final film is far more grounded in a sober reality with the action taking place in between the catastrophic Tokyo earthquake of 1923 and Japan entering World War II. The protagonist is Jiro Horikoshi, a boy whose dreams of being a pilot are thwarted due to his poor eyesight, and so instead grows up to become a passionate aeronautical engineer. Along the way he has intense dreams where he meets Giovanni Battista Caproni, an Italian aeroplane designer who tells encourages him to design planes for the joy of creating something beautiful and not to succumb to the temptation of creating war machines.
Jiro eventually gets a job working at an aircraft manufacturer that primarily make planes from wood. Here he is assigned the task of travelling to Germany in order to research their superior metal designs. He then returns to Japan to work on a number of different planes with increasing weapons capability.
Alongside all of this there is a central love story featuring Jiro and a woman named Naoko, whom he met after a train derailment during the Earthquake. She has developed Tuberculosis and is bedridden but lovingly lies at his side as he develops his engineering designs.
As a final film, it is striking how dark the subject matter is. Jiro has to compromise in order to achieve his dream and work for military contractors and naval clients, forced to design flushed rivets and other features in order to accommodate the machine guns. There is also a impending doom that arises in any film set in the late 1930s – a character at one point refers to the earthquake stating “I didn’t think Tokyo would recover so quickly”, an obviously ironic observation when contrasted by what is about to happen to Japanese cities in years to come. There is also a casual reference to Pearl Harbour where an engineer asks Jiro casually “who are they bombing with this one?... America Probably”
Needless to say to fans of Miyazaki’s earlier work, the art direction and animation are stunning. The long shots of fields and skies that are home to prototype planes being tested are painted as if 18th century watercolours. There are also beautiful sequences in rainstorms that Miyazaki has used to striking effect in a lot of his films. The plane designs are increasingly ludicrous and expansive but look spectacular as they sail through painted clouds. Even the depictions of plane wreckages look strangely beautiful in a kind of fin-de-siècle Futurist way.
The sound design is also gorgeously constructed. The soundtrack features sparse piano, strings and guitar with such a light touch that barely two notes ever play at the same time. Yet the most amusing sound effect is the choice to make all of the planes voiced by humans. Propellers and engines splutter in to life with rasping sounds that feels so playfully Japanese – a humorous move that American animators with their lofty sincerity would never agree to.
Miyazaki films have a slow pace and are about unusual subject natters, but the characters in his story are so compelling and optimistic and the strangers around them are so kind that they hard to dislike. The Wind Rises is a love letter to maths and design with an aeronautical engineer as the hero armed with blueprints and slide-rules. It is unlikely that a more beautiful cartoon will emerge this year.
[unashamed uses of word ‘beautiful’ in this review: 5]