The Studio Ghibli godhead, Hayao Miyazaki, returns with a lavish and whimsical period biopic.
Ghibli diehards may be unsure of what to do with Hayao Miyazaki's majestic latest, which played in competition at the 2013 Venice Film Festival. Gone are the loopy, expressionist flights of fancy, the (occasionally hectoring) environmental sub-themes and the customary panoply of cute critters and goofy comic side-players.
In their place, though, is a melodrama so earnest, rousing and robustly built that you'd swear it could have come out of Hollywood in the 1940s. Miyazaki has selected Jiro Horikoshi as his subject, a google-eyed, boy wonder engineer from the pre-war era working for the then-fledgling Mitsubishi corporation and given creative free rein to come up with fighter planes to rival those of Germany and the US. Yet Horikoshi's pacifist tendencies mean that he finds it tough to give over his designs for use in war games.
In many ways, The Wind Rises is biography as autobiography, telling of the triumphs and traumas of Horikoshi's young life as much as it does the director's own, much publicised feelings about his chosen metier. Horikoshi's aviation idol, Count Giovanni Caproni, assures him during a number of fairly restrained fantasy sequences that, “Aeroplanes are dreams” — could the same not be said of cinema, with the two men tasked with producing a product that's ideologically rooted in the realms of fantasy?
Both men are also prone to biomorphing — that is taking the simple, sturdy designs offered up by nature and co-opting them as inspiration to execute their craft: Horikoshi bases his wing ribs on the dainty curve of mackerel bones, while Miyazaki, for example, uses samples of human voices for all of the film's sound effects (propellers, trains, an earthquake, etc).
Though The Wind Rises would arguably fall into the bracket of the traditional biopic, it's interesting by dint of it being a formal conceit never adopted before by the Ghibli stable. And yes, it does adhere to conventional story arcs and reaches a somewhat predictable conclusion, yet Miyazaki stands at a valuable distance from his subject, never second guessing his intellectual development and never overplaying his lengthy bouts of sadness and confusion.
Satisfyingly, for a film about an inventor, there's a noticeable dearth of “eureka!” moments, where circumstances handily conspire to move the plot forward. Instead, this comes across as a dramatically unadorned take on Horikoshi's life, a saga that works as a collection of episodes and imperative moments and that steers thankfully clear of contrivance (something that Miyazaki the writer has, in the past, not always been capable of).
Within the Ghibli canon, The Wind Rises stands alongside Grave of the Fireflies as one of their most adult-oriented films. Though it's choreographed with all the priggish whimsy of a pre-code romance, this even offers up the studio's first bona fide sex scene. Still, it's doubtful that ankle-biters will get very much at all from the film, unless they're ankle-biters with a fixation on cross versus flat-head screws or the mechanical minutiae of wing struts.
Moments such as a mating ritual involving adjoining balconies and paper aeroplanes has a romantic purity to it that could bridge the generational divide, yet you feel that Miyazaki tempers these so to retain the essential solemnity at the heart of his overall project. If anything, The Wind Rises could and should attract an older audience, especially down to its strain of wistful nostalgia which harks to a time when all things analog ruled the roost. And with its abrupt downer ending, the film finally reveals its concealed sense of morbid curiosity, juxtaposing the mass destruction of Horikoshi's gliding dream machines with the natural, very sad disintegration of the human body.