Flights of fancy...
The Wind Rises (Kaze Tachinu 風立ちぬ) is the most recent (and supposedly final) animated feature film directed by acclaimed director Hayao Miazaki. The story is a fictionalized account of the life of Jiro Hirokoshi, the man who would eventually go on to design the (in)famous Mitsubishi A6M Zero Japanese World War II fighter plane. While the movie is set in an actual time period and several characters are real people, much of the story is fiction.
*** Note: Spoilers Ahead ***
The movie starts out with a fanciful sequence of a boy piloting a bird-like craft. Shortly after take off, things start to go bad, as his glasses interfere with his flight goggles, and a monstrous craft appears above him and proceeds to destroy his craft with demonic bombs. The boy, our protagonist Jiro Hirokoshi (voiced by Hideaki Anno, most famous for being director of the smash hit anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion), awakes from his dream but his dreams of flight never leave him. Realizing he could never fly with his poor eyesight, and inspired by another vision of Italian aircraft designer Giovanni Caproni, he dedicates his life to being an aeronautical engineer to design airplanes.
Skipping ahead some years, we find Jiro traveling back to the University of Tokyo by train. The journey is stopped a bit short by what turns out to be the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. It is a harrowing sequence as mother Earth shatters buildings and towns and is the origin of a terrible fire. Escaping the train, Jiro aided a young girl (Nahoko) and her maid get to safety.
Jiro turns out to be somewhat of a genius as a designer which brings him to get a job at Mitsubishi Internal Combustion Engine Company Limited designing fighter craft. Though several projects he worked on ended up in failure, he kept pursuing his dream to design beautiful aircraft. His job takes him to several places outside Japan, including meeting with Hugo Junkers in Germany.
After another project failure, Jiro goes on vacation at a resort where he runs into Nahoko, who happens to be daughter of the resort owner. The two confess feelings for one another and Jiro asks her her hand in marriage. She accepts but, unfortunately, Nahoko has tuberculosis and wants to get better before actually getting married.
Jiro returns to the company and is assigned to be chief designer of another fighter plane. He is also said to be under threat from the Germans, so ends up living in his boss' house in hiding. Nahoko, who was recovering in a sanatorium, decides she needs to see Jiro and flees to go find him. Jiro asks his boss and his wife to marry the couple and the boss (with some reservation) complies. Jiro spends long hours on his project, and though weak and mostly bedridden Nahoko lends strength to him as he does to her.
Finally done with his project and ready to finally test the plane (the Mitsubishi A5M, precursor to the famous Zero)m Jiro heads off to the airfield for tests. Nahoko chooses this time to leave the home and go back to the sanatorium so that Jiro will not see her deteriorate and pass on. During the test flight, a large gust of wind passes through the airfield and that's when Jiro knows he's lost her. The test flight though, is successful and Jiro goes on to design several other aircraft in his life. Though Jiro never wanted to design weapons of war, he does come to understand that part was a necessary part of fulfilling his dream.
I saw this film as a part of the Hawaii International Film Festival (HIFF). The film was originally released in Japan July 20, 2013, so it is a pretty recent release. Though I prefer Miyazaki's more fanciful and imaginative work (eg. Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle) I liked The Wind Rises. It's understandable that fans of his earlier work may not like this piece very much, as there are some sections that get into the more technical aspect of aircraft, and aside from the dream sequences that pepper the film, there is very little fantasy involved. I'm not sure if the many dream sequences coupled with the real life setting of the story was meant to appeal to fans of each, but it may serve to distract depending on your tastes. If you are a fan of one over the other, or just find the change up jarring, that is a potential flaw in end product. Still, there are things to like about the film. The main setting itself is pretty interesting, a Japan on the edge of modern heavy industry and Germany pre-World War II. The film touches on the environment during that period, and though the economy and politics of the day do show up, they are mostly in the distant background. Some of the subplots or side tangents could have been either been more tightly integrated or resolved, though the main thrust of the story was complete. The dream sequences add fancy, color and some levity.
Jiro is portrayed as a very subdued character, almost flat, with a kind soul. This subdued nature may be a turn-off for some, since it may seem there is a lack of passion in the film (which may make you wonder where his fanciful dreams come from). It seems that the characters around him were more colorful, including the two prominent women in his life; Nahoko (before her illness progressed) and his sister, the plucky Kayo. His surly (but good hearted) boss Kurokawa also is good for a laugh.
While the animation may not be as detailed as recent CGI laden blockbusters, there is some charm in its often simpler lines and shapes. The objects in the film almost breathe, and the earthquake sequence was particularly chilling with its organic sounding moans and cracking of Earth and environment. If you are a fan of animation in general (like I am), you will see lots of little detail and character motions that are hallmark of Studio Ghibli.
The version I saw was in Japanese with English subtitling. The subtitling itself was somewhat sparse and at times a bit frustrating, as I found where some things were placed was odd and it could have had more translated such as the German and some signage. Otherwise, it was clear enough to be understandable. Disney will be releasing this film in the future, so the version more widely released may differ from the one I saw. Joe Hisaishi provided the soundtrack for the film, which served the film fine, but there were times I was distracted as I heard strains of other work (the previously mentioned Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle) in this film. Still, Hisaishi's soundtracks are rarely ever bad.
Would I recommend this film? If you are a fan of animation, yes. I did find it a little flawed but still decent. It might have lacked the fantastical charm of Miyazaki's other films and did not have much bombast, but I see it as a comfortable breeze that can occasionally uplift.