When acclaimed animation director Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement late last year, it marked the end of a career so significant in the history of animation that it can only really be compared to the likes of Walt Disney. Under the umbrella of Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio he co-founded, he has created a body of work not just populated by classics, but often masterpieces. And so the release of his latest film, ‘The Wind Rises’, carries the weight of also being his swan song; the final statement of a truly great artist and one film lovers and fans have waited with bated breath to see.
Unlike his previous films, ‘The Wind Rises’ isn’t a work of fantasy. It explores the life of Jiro Horikoshi, a gifted aeronautical engineer who designed fighter planes for the Japanese in the lead-up to the Second World War. Rather than focusing on the wider historical scope though, the film places its focus on Jiro’s personal life, and his dreams of creating an aeroplane design that best captures the beauty he sees in flight. The film also looks at his tragic relationship with his wife Nahoko Satomi, and how their relationship pushed his artistry and drive ever forward.
This sounds like a dry sort of story for an animated film, and an odd one for a man with such an incredible imagination, but in the hands of Miyazaki it becomes something far more potent, moving and powerful. ‘The Wind Rises’ is utterly sublime, one of the finest works of animation to come out in years. With his nimble and delicate hand, the narrative unfolds with poetic simplicity, moving between the realities of a poor and crippled Japan and the vast scope of Jiro’s imagination. The film covers important historical markers in Japan’s history, including the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 (one of the finest moments of the film) and the Great Depression, but Miyazaki always uses this as a background to Jiro’s human story. This is a young man with great dreams and ambitions, but always with the intention of pushing human achievement and capabilities forward rather than creating engines of destruction.
The animation from Ghibli has always been the best in the world, but here they far exceed themselves, even without fantastic creatures and landscapes to play with. There is an elegance, a artistry to every frame of the film, which unfolds its narrative with tremendous care. Jiro’s daydreams in particular possess an innate sense of light and air and movement, and some of the most beautiful representations of flight ever seen on film. It moves at a very considered pace, enough to render it an unsuitable film for children if only because they may find themselves frustrated with the lack of significant action or humour, yet lovers of animation can only be blown away by the work in this film. The sound design is just as incredible. As expected, Joe Hisaishi delivers another remarkable score (one of the real highlights of Miyazaki’s films has been his collaborations with Hisaishi), but there are moments in the sound design of the film itself that are utterly revelatory, and the moment you realise what you are hearing is the moment the film truly soars. I won’t say any more, but you’ll know it when you hear it.
This is easily one of the most adult films Ghibli have released. There are obvious political dangers with choosing to tackle a story like this - especially as the planes Jiro designed went on to kill thousands upon thousands of people - but Miyazaki sidesteps this by making the film about the man and his desire to create rather than the creation itself. In fact, at points where a lesser artist would have put the focus on the aircraft, he turns directly to something more human and intimate. To say any more would ruin some of the most sublime moments, but the depth of feeling in this film at points becomes completely overwhelming. There was never any doubt that Miyazaki is a great artist, but what he achieves with this film is a level of emotion no one else in animation has ever come close to matching. There is no indulgence in this film, nothing fake or overblown. It delivers each blow with precision and delicacy, and the cumulative effect is staggering. This is such a complete artistic vision, and the heart and soul of the artist can be seen in every corner of the frame, as has always been the case with his work. We feel so much in his films, and in this one in particular, because the mind behind it cares so much about what he has to say and the vision it has. It’s easy to suspect that ‘The Wind Rises’ is not just about Jiro but about Miyazaki himself, and while it might seem a romantic idea that the film represents an artist looking back over what has driven him through his career, it seems too appropriate a film for Miyazaki to bow out with not to be the case.
This is easily one of the most adult films Ghibli have released.
The strive to create art is an all-consuming one, a battle between the desire to create and the practicalities of living. Never has this been explored with more beauty and subtlety and pain than in ‘The Wind Rises’. I’ve tried as much as possible not to ruin the things that make this film as stunning as it is, because their impact is so great that it should be felt without warning. If Miyazaki sticks to his decision to retire from filmmaking, he could not have gone out with a better film. This is animation at the height of its power, proof that it is an art form very few are using to its full advantage. Films this special do not come along very often, and probably will now become even rarer once this great voice is gone. ‘The Wind Rises’ is one of the finest films of Miyazaki’s career, the finest animated film of the year and one of the finest animated films ever made.
For this review I saw the original Japanese version, which included the voice of Hideaki Anno, the creator of the legendary ‘Evangelion’ series, as Jiro. The film is also being released in an English-language version featuring Emily Blunt, Stanley Tucci, William H. Macy, John Krasinski and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Jiro. Check with cinemas to find where the different versions are showing.