For 2016 I’ve given myself a weekly challenge: watch a film that I’ve never seen before. That’s it. One film, each week. No restrictions on age, genre, or theme.
PLEASE BE AWARE THAT MY DISCUSSION OF THESE FILMS WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS.
TL;DR: Jiro dreams of airplanes.
Hayao Miyazaki is getting old. He released The Wind Rises at the age of seventy-two and the beginning of his fifth decade in the animation industry. He’s been suggesting that he’ll retire since at least 1997 – but there’s always one last film he wants to make.
Many of Miyazaki’s films take place in a vaguely-Europe-between-the-wars alternate universe, and Porco Rosso deals heavily with sociopolitical realities of that era, but The Wind Rises is his first film to profile a real person from that time period: Jiro Horikoshi, designer of Japanese fighter planes. Miyazaki is more interested in the accuracy of the planes than Jiro’s life – his family relationships, including the love story, are entirely fictionalized – but the film keeps solid footing in our world.
Still, this wouldn’t be Miyazaki without a dose of the fantastic, so we frequently detour into Jiro’s dreams, where he is visited by Italian aircraft designer Giovanni Caproni (voiced with panache in the English dub by Stanley Tucci). Caproni is fond of quoting Paul Valery’s 1920 poem “Le Cimetière marin” (“The Graveyard by the Sea”), a meditation on mortality which provides our tone, our theme, and our title: “The wind is rising! We must try to live!”
And all of Japan seems tossed by that rising wind. Jiro is born into Japan’s century of modernization, when its first isolationist and then war-torn society struggled to play catch-up with the industrial European nations. Gusts of wind lift Jiro’s and Caproni’s planes but also tear them apart; bring lovers together and soak them with storms; carry letters folded into paper planes and deliver ordnance from the hulls of American bombers. Tokyo burns, is rebuilt, and burns again. Jiro and his fellow engineers struggle to learn the best techniques in Japan’s fledgling aeronautics industry, and when they visit Germany to learn from that country’s air force, they’re watched by government agents. But the head engineer, Hugo Junkers, allows Jiro to board and inspect his planes – one craftsman to another.
After one of his planes catastrophically fails, Jiro retreats to the mountains for a little self-reflection. A reunion with a girl he met many years before draws him out of his dreaminess, but not his determination. His life is full, his days spent planning and testing and spending as much time as he can with his fragile but supportive wife.
“How were your ten years in the sun?” Caproni asks in Jiro’s final dream. World War II has turned Jiro’s airplanes into suicide machines, and his luminous wife has died much too soon, but he hasn’t lost his sense of beauty – or grown old. The real Jiro Horikoshi lived to seventy-eight, but once he becomes an adult, the animation stops aging him. One wonders if that’s how Miyazaki sees himself – or is that how we understand Miyazaki’s legend?
The Wind Rises shows Miyazaki’s age, but in the sense that he could only have made it toward the end of a life well-lived. It’s an expression of love, one craftsman to another, about the shared impulse to make something beautiful, something durable, something with the true spirit of flight.