The article contains spoilers for The Wind Rises.
The Wind Rises is an animated feature film made by Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli which supposedly is to be Miyazaki’s last feature movie. It tells a story of the life of Jiro Horikoshi during the Second World War and how he came to design the famous Zero fighter airplanes.
I want to say now in good time that I have to unfortunately describe a little bit of the ending scene to get to my point, so if you don’t want it to be spoiled then maybe you want to see the movie before reading this. Otherwise, let’s continue.
It is an animated historical drama set in reality in which we follow a semi-biographical story of Jiro and events that unfold in Japan, like for example the famous Great Kanto earthquake of 1923. But next to this the movie also includes magical elements as part of the storytelling, such as expressive dream sequences, undeterminable spirit-like characters, or just human voices as the sound effects of the airplanes. It balances between these two from moment to moment. And to me, for some reason, it felt like there was something wrong with the reality part.
Many of the scenes seem to struggle somewhat with telling the more realistic and physical life story. I had an unease feel of the editing and the flow of emotional connection between scenes. The usual drama does not carry on as if the characters are not carrying it with them. They feel uninterested and passive. Whenever the story introduces a magical element the flow sparks with fire and seems to settle naturally on the right pace. As if this would be its natural state.
This is the only aspect of the movie that I feel critical about. From a director who has had such a natural touch to tell a story with the most fluent waves, I was surprised of the unconfident feel of drama. But this is not the only odd thing about the movie.
With The Wind Rises we are confronted with a particularly unusual element in a Miyazaki movie. Very early on our main protagonist grows up into an adult.
I think the only other adult protagonist in his movies was in Princess Mononoke (which coincidentally dealt also with confronting mature issues with a mature style). Usually Miyazaki’s characters are either very young naive children, or youth becoming adult and learning to receive the weight of responsibilities.
You have come to expect certain elements in the style of specific artists and with Miyazaki’s latest it felt for a second as if we stepped into another universe than his own with the main character who had a broken and mature tone of voice and who smoked a lot of cigarettes. Really, like all the time. It felt little bit weird.
But in the end, extremely personal weird.
For anyone who has watched Miyazaki’s animations the element of aviation, the wind and the sky is something that is immediately recognisable from all of his movies. We have come to know him and his fascination to fly. His movies deal mostly with his personal views on our world and the many moral questions ranging from anti-war to the love of nature, incorporating the aviation as a tool of storytelling that captures the spirit of the message. The movies are his voice of expressing something about ourselves. The Wind Rises is his voice of expressing something about himself.
That’s the most obvious image you get from the story about an engineer and an artist who designs airplanes. The reflection is magnified even more with the setting in real life and the adult main character who, as well as Miyazaki himself, smokes a lot of cigarettes. While being a careful character study of Jiro Horikoshi, it is also a reflection on Miyazaki himself and his career.
Under the skin it was his retirement movie. They explore throughout the film the idea for example that an artist has 10 years of creativity in which they will shine and then blown out afterwards. The end of Miyazaki’s career is connected with the airplanes in the story which are the focus of Jiro’s inspiration and commitment to the craft that will realize his dreams. Not to mention friendship and love. They materialize all the elements of Miyazaki’s retirement from filmmaking.
One aspect however kept itself as a mystery for me.
What was the war about?
It is a period movie set in the time of Second World War about an engineer designing the famous airplanes for the Japanese military, so it is quite logical to see a war in the background. But why this period? If the creation of aviation is the element of the artist itself, then what does the war mean?
For example the war is put surprisingly aside from the story. We focus closely on the life of the protagonist while the war is kept hovering over it. It is interesting that while we are insightfully exploring the Jiro’s life developing airplanes to be used in combat, we don’t really connect him with the war. The engineers repeatedly ignore their position as responsibles by arguing that “they are not making weapons, only beautiful airplanes.” The confrontation of the war is portrayed in the mind of the protagonist through nightmares, but they feel like incorporating a lot more subconscious struggle within the artist than just the responsibility of his actions. In this sense the story was kept within the subjective mind of Jiro where we didn’t face the horror of war that brew in reality.
And we were never really given any facts about the Zero fighters and their destiny in combat, which leaves some of the audience who are not familiar with their history out in the cold. In general it feels like the movie strictly prevents any in-depth study about the war. Yet it is always there. And this why for me it remained as the big mystery of the film.
How the documentary completed the story
For many people the quality of work done in Studio Ghibli has been a massive source of inspiration and it has set a standard for future artists to live up to. Not mention how much their movies has influenced the borders of imagination and creativity in the growing young generations. And they have done all this in silence with very limited publicity.
So the reveal of the Studio Ghibli for an audience was a bewildering opportunity.
The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness is the first time we are able to observe the inner life of the studio, not to mention it’s main driving forces who are responsible for the acclaimed releases.
That is why it did shock me a little bit how much the documentary focused mainly on Hayao Miyazaki. Apart from him and producer Toshio Suzuki we get very little from the studio that beholds an incredible team of artists who are, as a whole, responsible in creating those amazing movies, not to mention Isao Takahata who is mysteriously kept in the shadows and off from the documentary, pretty much the whole running time.
This just came little bit weird from a film which incorporates the word “kingdom” in it’s title and three main figures in the poster.
But despite this appearance (and actually because of this) the documentary becomes even more interesting than what it could have been in a normal situation.
This is because of the contradicting nature of the documentary itself. It has been logical that we have not seen any in-depth tour of the studio if all the artists want to stay out of the public light, only to express themselves through their releases. This seems to be even the case now in the documentary. So why do a documentary, and why is Miyazaki particularly being so open now all of a sudden?
I see it very much as a part of his retirement and as a reflection of himself and his past career as a filmmaker. It is about him and his contribution as the co-founder of Ghibli, as well as an exploration into his creativity and personality. For some reason he has chosen to opened up part of himself for his retirement.
This and another reason, to which we come later on, is why I really think that The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness is a companion film for The Wind Rises. It is not only “a behind the scenes movie” for people to study the technicality of the filmmaking, but it connects with what the movie is saying and completes the retirement theme as Miyazaki’s grand final effort.
The simple reason is that it really explains everything about the movie. Suzuki himself explains the concept of the film before it is even released:
“To quickly summarize The Wind Rises, it’s about a man named Jiro Horikoshi. For those who aren’t familiar with him, he designed the Zero fighter plane. The story begins in his childhood, when Jiro Horikoshi is ten years old. The boy is in love with the skies, and dreams of flying an airplane. That’s his dream. But by the time this boy grows up, and becomes an adult years later, hoping to find a job making planes, the world is at war. So he’s forced to design carrier-borne fighter planes. Miyazaki was born in 1941, so he lived through the war. But just like this character, he finds himself fascinated by military aircrafts. He’s a man who’s lived with this contradiction. He’s torn by what he loves. He’s drawn to war planes, yet he’s anti-war. How is someone like him even possible? That’s what he’s trying to answer with this film.”
First of all you realize that in addition to telling a story about Jiro as an artist it is also about Miyazaki’s childhood. He grew up next to the war and experienced many of the same things as the protagonist. For example the scene involving Great Kanto Earthquake must have been something similar to his own experiences during the night time firebombing in 1945. His father was able to support his family by working for the war industries, much like Jiro. His life, as well as many others, was directed by the effects of the war. And he is now living through it as he is directing the film.
Unlike Princess Mononoke it is not a “movie at war” that focuses on the action and chaos inside the war, but a period movie about life under war. And a story, without being a biographical narration, telling openly about his own childhood.
The other reason that ties in the documentary with the companion symmetry is the lack of everyone else, particularly Takahata, in the documentary spotlight. The fact that we are focusing on Miyazaki tells a great deal about what he is going through making the film and what he is trying to say with it.
Next to the drama created between Miyazaki and Takahata we see the contrast in their characters. The difference comes most clear in a scene where Suzuki explains how Miyazaki needed only five seconds to look at the poster art and he could choose the right one, whereas Takahata needed two hours. The studio has come to know how slowly Takahata can work and how frustrating this can be for everyone. But it says a lot about Miyazaki to open up about his own creative struggles and to use so much energy to continually go back and forth with his emotions about his relation to Takahata.
More and more we start seeing his nihilistic side which he also does not try to hide. It comes out very straightforward and stays in if you liked it or not. And for many who have learned to love his optimistic movies I can imagine it comes as a small shock. How can someone who makes these lovable and inspirational movies can be so nihilistic about himself and the world around him?
In the end the documentary is about Miyazaki’s struggles in telling stories and living next to the career he has created for himself. Just like how Suzuki described the concept in the animated movie, it is about that inner conflict. And this is what we had to see. Instead of the chance to marketise his final movie he decided to tell about how he never feels happy in his daily life and how filmmaking brings only suffering and how the unclear future is inevitably going to be destroyed.
And that is what the war is about in The Wind Rises. The dream of aviation, which in all it’s beauty became to have destructive existence. The deep passion for art and craft, and the contradiction of the destructive and nihilistic side of his own natural dreaming personality. His whole life work has been extreme fight to say something and have a meaning. And maybe it all blew up and came crushing down, just like the airships in Jiro’s dream.
In this sense I could have never imagine how dark the movie really was.
This is what he is trying to deal with. The weight of his art in reality. The confrontation of the result of his effort to create something beautiful. The dreams that are being destroyed. As if they became just tools.
For this theme he needed the animated feature and the documentary. To tell a story about himself he needed also to show it. The Wind Rises is not only a movie about the man who designed the Zero fighters, and it is not only a movie about the artist and his career, but a movie about Miyazaki making it.
This is why I feel like the movies rely on each other. You have not really experienced The Wind Rises if you have not met Miyazaki, and for the documentary it is his way to introduce himself to us. While the documentary illustrates the reasons behind the elements of the story, the animated film itself completes the character of Miyazaki.
Because despite all the nihilism he cannot stop dreaming. The conclusion of the movie is the result of the story that explored his contradiction, and I am glad to say it ends in a hopeful final image. Him being the most critical to himself, in the end he cannot let that nightmare take over.
He comes to accept the reality. The career has to be left behind to “fly free” and the inevitable loss of love confronted as part of life. Her spirit dissolves after letting him go. Her umbrella caughts up in the wind and flies through the sky, as if saying that life (like the airplanes that he designed that were eventually destroyed) is beautiful, and carries the burden of the knowledge that we are driven by forces that we may not have any control over.
There is an inspiration to this ending. Miyazaki chooses to be released from his burden. The art has to live on despite our cynicism. And maybe we cannot change who we are and it may seem even more harder to change the world around us, but because of this we have to try harder. Facing the rising wind, we have to live on.
This was a very hard choice for Miyazaki and The Wind Rises escalates into his biggest effort. He is the responsible elder who sees his time at the end and prepares to leave the craftsmanship of dreams for the new engineers. It is a reminder from an old dreamer to himself and to others that “airplanes are not tools of war and they are not for making money. They are beautiful dreams that we the engineers turn into reality.”