Director Hayao Miyazaki has taken audiences to magical, alluring worlds throughout his filmography. He’s shown us witches, sorcerers, buses that are also cats, and so much more. His latest (and, if he’s truly retiring, final) film, The Wind Rises, leaves the fantastical behind to focus on the true story of the man who designed Japan’s Zero Fighter for World War II. The movie is almost completely unlike anything Miyazaki has ever done, and while his attempt to try something new is admirable, it’s also by far his weakest picture. Trapped inside a realistic world, Miyazaki’s story feels restrained and lifeless with only the dream sequences providing any spark to a story about a nice-guy workaholic who was also in love with a nice girl.
Jiro Horikoshi (voiced by Hideaki Anno) has spent his entire life dreaming about building airplanes. He even experiences a dream with famous Italian aeronautic engineer Mr. Caproni (Mansai Nomura). Jiro is also exceptionally kind. On a train ride to his university, an earthquake strikes, and he ends up rescuing a couple of his fellow passengers. Once Jiro begins his schooling and professionally working as an engineer, the story plods along as he admires airplane designs, and comes up with revolutionary designs of his own. The story then takes a break so Jiro can meet up with one the girls he rescued years before and fall in love with her.
The movie is as cold and mechanical as the planes Jiro designs. Miyazaki works from a simple formulation that we should see Jiro excited about planes, and then take a hard shift for him to fall in love before trying to have it all with both a wife and his profession. While Jiro is a good guy and we’re glad he likes his profession and his wife, neither love comes alive. There’s probably a way to make aeronautic engineering lively and entertaining, but Miyazaki never makes us share in Jiro’s enthusiasm about rivets that will reduce drag. And as for his love story, it never comes off as a realistic relationship, which is surprising since relationships in other Miyazaki movies feel authentic even though they’re set in larger-than-life settings.
Miyazaki’s gift is that through his animation, he can conjure up incredible worlds, and then use the magic within those worlds to create honest, compelling emotions. My Neighbor Totoro has a smiling, gigantic bunny-like creature who can fly, but the heart of the story is about two children who are worried that their sick mother is going to die. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind features a princess who rides around on a jet-powered glider, but the story carries a strong anti-war and pro-environment message. Princess Mononoke is another film with a strong environmental theme, but it also has forest spirits and wolf goddesses. Porco Rosso is another anti-war movie, but the protagonist is a pig-man. Miyazaki has always been able to get to where he wants through a fantasy lens, but down in the real world, removed from everything supernatural, his story is lifeless. The anti-war part is inevitably present due to Jiro working to make a warplane for Japan, but The Wind Rises carries little emotional impact.
What little there is comes from, unsurprisingly, Jiro’s dreams where anything is possible. In his dreams, he talks with Caproni, who shows the young Jiro fantastical airplanes. For Jiro, airplanes aren’t in the dreams. They are the dreams, and they can take him anywhere. But when he’s not dreaming, he’s not going much of anywhere. The dreamer fades away, and he comes off as a smart engineer, but a mostly ordinary guy who created something extraordinary, and in The Wind Rises, it doesn’t feel like anything special. The dreams are the closest we come to sharing in his passion.
The dreams Hayao Miyazaki showed us in his filmography have been truly remarkable, and his work has been an inspiration to millions. It wasn’t just that they were delightful, magical worlds. It’s that the stories within those worlds were deep and thoughtful. The Wind Rises shows that the magical aspects of Miyazaki’s previous movies weren’t a crutch, but the best way for him to tell his story. Without the excitement of flying ships, flying castles, flying pigs, flying delivery girls, etc. Miyazaki’s film is grounded. It can only look to the sky and dream while the audience falls asleep.
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