The Wind Rises may be a historical biopic about an aeronautical engineer, but in the hands of animator Hayao Miyazaki, it’s less about nuts and bolts than it is about the force of nature.
From the fantastic forest gods of Princess Mononoke to the tree-dwelling title creature of My Neighbor Totoro, the natural world – or a fantasy variation on it – has had a dominant presence in Miyazaki’s work. And so this picture is not titled Jiro Horikoshi – the name of the real-life designer of the Zero fighter planes used by Japan in World War II, who is the movie’s central figure – but The Wind Rises, a phrase borrowed from a 1920 poem by Paul Valery. The title references the uncontrollable forces that buffet a person’s life, as well as the literal gusts that are a constant presence in the film: blowing grass, pushing clouds, bending trees and feeding the monstrous fire that devours Tokyo following an earthquake in Jiro’s student days.
For his part, Jiro (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the English-dubbed version) is in awe of nature, but not cowed by it. Perhaps that’s why he has the hubris to think he can harness the wind to send great machines in the air, an aspiration he has held since he was a boy. The movie opens with a childhood dream of Jiro’s, in which he launches a one-man craft from the roof of his home and magnificently soars – at least until he encounters a fleet of bombers that resemble chomping whales (nature again).
The natural world – or a fantasy variation on it – has had a dominant presence in Miyazaki’s work.
That imagery is a foreshadowing of what will come to haunt Jiro’s adult dreams, not to mention his career and talent. By the time he has finished school and is given the chance to design his own planes, Japan is deeply embroiled in World War II and demands battle plans from its brightest minds.
The Wind Rises doesn’t spend much time on the moral dimensions of this – for Japan as a nation or Jiro as a person. Instead, it laments the war as a waste of Jiro’s gifts, of talent corrupted. It is largely a story – to quote the Italian plane designer Caproni, who appears in Jiro’s visions – of “cursed dreams.”
What’s remarkable about The Wind Rises is that in addition to all of this the movie manages to make room for a moving romance. About midway through, Jiro reunites with a young woman he had fleetingly met when he was younger. They are both staying at the same hotel, where he conducts a gentle courtship in which he woos her by paper airplane. We learn that Nahoko (Emily Blunt), who eventually becomes his wife, suffers from tuberculosis, and her struggle with the sickness through the rest of the film is yet another way that chaotic nature exerts its will on Jiro’s life.