Review: The Wind Rises

The Wind Rises

Trailer

"The wind is rising, we must try to live."

“The wind is rising, we must try to live.”

The truth is I’ve never been a gigantic fan of Studio Ghibli productions, though I can say I’ve given them more than their fair share of chances to impress me. I tend to find them rather dull (like Arrietty), inaccessible to someone who doesn’t understand the intricacies of Japanese culture (Spirited Away) and generally made for an audience I am very far removed from (Howl’s Moving Castle). But the subject matter of this, famed director Hayao Miyazaki’s last film (or so he says), piqued my interest. A biopic of a World War Two aviation engineer? Why choose a subject so far removed from some of his previous work? And how would a company like Ghibli approach such a potentially volatile idea, one that could easily grate with the feelings of modern Japanese towards their less illustrious past? I caught a screening of The Wind Rises, one of the first in Ireland, at Dublin’s Japanese Film Festival.

The Wind Rises is a fictionalised biopic of famed aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi (Hideaki Anno), whose life offers a unique view of his Japan in the first half of the 20th century. Through early dreams of flight, earthquakes, the beginnings of a brilliant career at Mitsubishi, a heartrending romance and attempts to build a flying machine both beautiful and deadly, we follow Jiro on his journey from being a child with fantastical thoughts of airborne contraptions to a man daring to make those visions a reality.

More in-depth discussion of the film, with spoilers, from here on out. For a shorter, non-spoiler, review, click here to go to The Write Club. This review has a bit more brevity than my usual, for which I can blame a bout of illness during the week, and for that I can only beg forgiveness.

This is an a very interesting film to watch, a depiction of pre-World War Two Japan that skirts the line between fiction and fact in two very varying plot lines, but it unfortunately falls short in many key areas. The most notable is its length, with what seems like 90 minutes worth of plot stretched out into over two hours. This is an unforgivably repetitive flaw with Ghibli productions in my experience, but has less to do with story and more to do with the really drawn out visuals choices – so much of The Wind Rises is establishing shots, travel montages and the like, that by the time the film nears its conclusion, you’ll be more bored than enthralled. The sudden ending comes like a glass of water in the face, and you’re left wondering just where the time went, and how that turned out to be the last act: it really is a sudden, and somewhat unsatisfying, ending.  The more interesting portions are placed very early on, and the love plot really does drag The Wind Rises into mediocrity in terms of its pacing.

That’s a pity, because there is a decent story in here somewhere. There are two main plot threads that we see Jiro unravel, the first as an engineer, dedicated to the artistic vision that the likes of Italian aviator Count Caproni encourage him about in really memorable dream sequences early on, that speak to themes of inspiration and childlike ambition. Looking back, they really are my favourite parts, they were where so much of Hayao’s talent was able to shine through, in both characterisation and visual, without being bogged down by the later story. Following this through to its conclusion, in the plants and design floor of Mitsubishi, is really interesting to watch. You get a sense of how the business works along with a more fluid look at the nuances of creativity – how a paper airplane design can drive a person on, and how the company making such a plane is far more than the sum of its parts.

This takes in the better part of the plot and its interesting characters, though only so much is done with them. There is Jiro’s best friend Honjo, who could be a potential rival but who never becomes so, a real missed opportunity that was vaguely inferred but never acted upon. Without such conflict, there is certainly an element of “Who cares?” to their relationship, with Honjo just being some guy.

There is the short-tempered and generally short boss man Kurokawa, who starts off very antagonistic towards Jiro but who then later serves as the witness to his wedding. A nice evolution, but it seemed like most of it happened “offscreen” and is thus only inferred. The audience is left to connect the dots, which is fine, but considering the running time you wonder why stuff like that was cut out.

And there is the enigmatic German holidaymaker Castorp, who offers some of the film’s most troubling and unintentionally unnerving scenes, mostly due to his rather creepy appearance and his prophecies of doom, bluntly stating “Germany will blow up. Japan will too.” Castorp arrives and departs in mysterious fashion, just a random reference to the Thomas Mann book The Magic Mountain it seems, whose larger ties to the Nazi German state and the issue of fascism are largely unexplored.

This plot outlines Jiro’s dreams and how he goes about achieving them, and that’s simple and enjoyable storytelling. The only problem is a feeling that things are invariably shallow: Jiro is the only real character of note, with everyone around him in this section of the plot being little more than stand-ins to bounce dialogue off of.

The second part is a completely fictionalised love plot with a woman named Naoko, someone Jiro meets during the Kanto earthquake and bumps into later. They meet cute, there’s a bond, and it comes to fruition later in the story. Standard, almost clichéd stuff. Really, within the obligatory tragic angle just to make sure no one was getting too happy when the romance starts to bloom.

The love plot portions of The Wind Rises are a real weak point.

The love plot portions of The Wind Rises are a real weak point.

This portion of the plot (and the film’s title) takes its cues from the Paul Valery quote “The wind is rising, we must try to live”, as both characters attempt to deal with different kinds of adversity and move forward with their lives. For Jiro its repeated failures with his aircraft stalling his careers and his artistic ambition, for Naoko it’s her debilitating illness that she can’t seem to shake. The message of their love story is that of a triumph against opposition: they get married, share a brief but happy time together, and Jiro see’s his ambitions fulfilled even as his wife passes.

But their romance is rather lifeless and overly elongated, earmarked for a tragic end long before it really should have been. The sense of impending doom is lessened, and we get is a very maudlin descent into ill-health by Naoko, with Jiro doesn’t seem to realise, for some reason. The pace of this love story kills The Wind Rises dead (if you’ll pardon the term), as it goes from an interesting look at the life of this singular man and into something more akin to a Nicholas Sparks novel. Its derivative, it’s dull and it made me yawn on more than one occasion.

Away from that, Jiro is a great choice to take us on this journey of a rising Imperial power, a rare nugget of genuine artistic genius adrift in a sea of increasingly militant countrymen. The rise of Japan’s own version of fascism is slow but undeniable, especially as Jiro himself comes under suspicion from the secret police, and must be hidden (a plot thread that received no kind of ending now that I think about it). Only briefly do we get a glimpse at the actual men who are driving Japan on a path to destruction, as they take a look at Jiro’s plans and demand what they demand. They come across as loud, ignorant men, the cavemen-like paymasters that Jiro, the exceptional talent, must try to deal with and appease.

A direct line is drawn between the Japan that suffered so greatly in the 1923 Kanto earthquake and the Japan that lay in ruins in 1945, its cities in flames both times, but for vastly different reasons. The same visual signs of fires in the background, of cities destroyed, dominate both sections, though the second one is undeniably shorter and less visceral. This is a time in Japanese history and cultural evolution that is so ignored as to be almost invisible in western study, so I appreciated getting to see an exploration of it onscreen: before the likes of Pearl Harbour, there was mass unemployment, starvation, a backwards military and a people who saw their wooden capital burn to the ground and just rebuilt again, with wood. The sense is of a cynical, hard working and stubborn people, that Jiro is both part of and unlike in different ways. He lacks the militant streak and rampant nationalism of others, but does not seem to have the spine to make a really firm stand against it.

And that leads on to the main controversy of The Wind Rises. As many of the more vocal critics have noted, the bloody legacy of Jiro’s “Zero” fighter, and the Japanese war machine in general, is largely not noted in the course of The Wind Rises, save for an all too brief glimpse of the horrors of the Second World War near the conclusion. And, it should be noted, that’s a glimpse that focuses entirely on the suffering of Japan and its aviation industry. It’s important to distinguish the man from the events that he lived through in a biopic – you don’t need to see the Japanese advance through China to understand Jiro’s life, or the growing war-ready aspect of his native land – but even I must roll my eyes at the absence of Korean slave labour in the Mitsubishi factories where Jiro worked. It’s that sort of active denial, apart from simply not showing military campaigns because Jiro wasn’t there, that bothers me. Hayao clearly has a great deal of respect and admiration for Jirop, but there are moments when such things are clearly clouding the perception of him that he is trying to envision onscreen. Jiro worked in an industry that had some very nasty aspects, which built machines that killed a great many people. That deserves some time in something like The Wind Rises, apart from a message of “its worth making things you consider beautiful even if they end up destroying people”.

The ending isn’t great, having all the hallmarks of an ending that isn’t one, like Hayao just sort of didn’t know how to finish his film properly. Jiro says goodbye to his deceased wife, briefly notes World War Two and its horrors, and then goes off to drink some wine with his imaginary Count Caproni. If this just a dream? Is Jiro entering the afterlife? What about his life after World War Two? Hello? Mr Hayao!

In terms of female characters, The Wind Rises only has two to note. The first is Jiro’s sister, an aspiring doctor, who meets with him in a couple of scenes, but doesn’t really seem to add anything other than a few does of helpful advice about Naoko and a connection to his home life. The second is Naoko herself. She’s interesting and has her unique traits, but in the end she’s just something for Jiro to aspire to, largely absent of her own agency or objectives, beyond merely staying alive and then sparing Jiro the pain of her death near the conclusion.

The voice acting is fine I guess. I’ve always thought native Japanese speakers speaking their language can struggle to really get the emotion into their words in a way that us westerners, so far removed from them and their manner of speaking, can easily understand. Hideaki, Miori, Hidetoshi and Masahiko all read the dialogue of their words without sounding too amateurish, but I feel I am from the wrong part of the world to really offer a firm judgement in their abilities. The cast for the English dubbed version looks incredibly accomplished – Joseph Gordon Levitt, Emily Blunt, Stanley Tucci and William H. Macy are just some of the fine actors involved – but I’m probably not going to be in a position to ever view that. And I’m certainly not getting into an interminable debate on the merits and weaknesses of original audio over dubbing.

The films better moments are in imaginative dream sequences.

The films better moments are in imaginative dream sequences.

Visually, The Wind Rises is as accomplished as any other Studio Ghibli production, with all of the eye for facial detail and impressive backgrounds that other examples of the anime genre often fail to capture. While the delivery of dialogue might struggle to get things across, that specific piece of animation works very well.

Jiro’s dreams and vivid imagination are shown in a variety of colours and hues, contrasting nicely with the often grim reality of Japan between the wars, where the impeccably dressed, chain smoking engineers wander through dilapidated wooden streets awaiting the next firestorm. Impoverished children roam the downtrodden urban environments and the hotel locale late on, with its rural beauty, comes like a breath of fresh air.

Of particular note is the sequence surrounding the Kanto earthquake, as the earth rolls up and haunting flames lick the background sky. The other side of the coin is the unnecessaries of course – the apparently insatiable desire of the director (and the studio) to cram in unnecessary shots and scenes, often as simple as overdone travel sequences.

Still, the sequences based around flight, whether they are the early dreams or the actual development of the A5M, are all done wonderfully, with a great eye for movement, colour and capturing the inspiration within the artists eye.

The script is pretty basic for the most part, with the few deeper moments occurring mostly in Jiro’s dream conversations with Count Caproni, as they ponder whether beauty is worth bringing into the world when it will eventually be perverted by the obscene whims of others. The dialogue between characters is simple for most of the running time, getting the point across in as basic a fashion as possible. Hayao wants to use visual choices to get the right mood and emotions across I suppose, and the script suffers for that decision. The romantic dialogue is fairly insipid, and The Wind Rises is certainly no great love story, the boredom of the script in these sections being quite apparent from the get go.

A decent score from Ghibli mainstay Joe Hisaishi accompanies things, marked by a nice accordion motif that seems positively European in its style. The music fits the story and what occurs nicely enough, without ever really threatening to break out and become something truly great.

In terms of themes, The Wind Rises nails its colours to the mast with its very title, the aforementioned quote from poet Paul Valery. “The wind is rising, we must try to live”, a simple yet very eloquent call for people to struggle through adversity and get what they want out of life, even if it comes with very difficult circumstances.

In The Wind Rises, Jiro wants to fly. His poor health and eyesight prohibits that, so instead he decides to build airplanes. He learns, he starts from the bottom, he suffers through failed prototypes and eventually he succeeds. His obstacles are both tangible and intangible: a suspicious dictorial state goes after him, while he suffers through an internal crisis of confidence before the creation of the A5M.

In love too, does Jiro struggle through adversity, to walk into the wind and find a life worth living. His marriage to Naoko is a doomed one from the start, that only allows the young lovers a very short time of happiness, but it is still something worth having. You should never be so afraid of losing something, I suppose, that you don’t try to have it, which is the key message of The Wind Rises. That union gives Jiro the right kind of impetus to complete the first of his famous airplanes, even as the final fate of Naoko tinges everything with a certain bittersweetness.

That’s connected to another key theme, that of the price of beauty. Jiro and Count Caproni discuss this during one of The Wind Rises’s more interesting sequences. Caproni wants to know if Jiro would prefer a world with pyramids or without them. Jiro supposes a world with pyramids. This then goes into a larger tangent on whether creating art is worth it, when such things will be misinterpreted, put to bad uses or actively become the opposite of what the creator intended.

The parallels with Jiro’s life are obvious. He’s the creator of the Zero fighter, probably the best military aircraft of the early war period. It’s a sleek, beautiful plane, but it was also on the frontlines of a military campaign that was essentially genocidal in south-east Asia. Jiro couldn’t follow his chosen passion, the creation of aircraft, without making them for such a purpose. Does that make it OK? Does it make the pursuit of such art acceptable? The Wind Rises would seem to think that it does. There are many who will disagree.

This is also seen in the relationship between Jiro and Naoko. Is their love really worth it, the pursuit of a marriage union, when Naoko is soon to die? As with the pursuit of art even when there will be inevitably negative consequences, The Wind Rises, believes that it is worth seeking. The happiness you can gain from such a union, however brief, is worth seeking.

Hayao has been trying to get out of this game for a while now (this isn’t his first “last film”) and The Wind Rises does carry a certain melancholy throughout, particularly noting that true genius has ten years to flourish before it become stagnant and outdated. It isn’t hard to see the director’s inner feelings about animation and his works misinterpretation coming through the script.

But what also comes through is the passion and respect Hayao has for the life of Jiro. This is a double edged sword, as some great cinema is seen at one moment, but a badly paced and very dull ambiance is evident as others, the director being attached so strongly to his vision that he cannot create an experience truly enjoyable for the audience. This is unfortunate, but The Wind Rises will still hold an obvious attraction for animation and Ghibli fans, as well as for those who wish to see an uncommon glimpse of a man, a time, a place and a machine, things which would not otherwise receive much notice.

An interesting, but faltering, biopic.

An interesting, but faltering, biopic.

(All images are copyright of Toho and Touchstone Pictures).

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