The Wind Rises, Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki's final directorial feature, is an emotionally generous and expansively detailed romantic fantasy. Based on Kaze Tachinu, Miyazaki's manga biography of WWII airplane engineer Jiro Horikoshi, The Wind Rises' apolitical, dreamlike drama valorizes Horikoshi as a dreamer who remains optimistic during wartime.
As a disengaged observer, Horikoshi (voiced by animator Hideaki Anno) imagines evil as an abstract concept, like the automatonlike bomber pilots that he pictures in the film's breathtaking introductory dream sequence. Good, on the other hand, is only relatively concrete, represented by either the grassy hills that serve as a visual leitmotif for Horikoshi's wife, Naoko Satomi (former pop singer Miori Takimoto), who has tuberculosis, or the bright blue sky he imagines his planes will one day soar across.
Horikoshi's view of war as an elemental conflict stems from his uncertain waking life. He is as sure of keeping his job as his wife is of recovering from her illness, making his credo — "The wind is rising! We must try to live!" — touchingly aspirational.
As a myopic daydreamer, Horikoshi doesn't often notice what's going on around him. He excels at engineering because he has trained himself to focus on problems, not life. But in his dreams, Giovanni Battista Caproni, a turn-of-the-century pilot and plane designer, urges Horikoshi to engage with the world around him.
Horikoshi is subsequently overwhelmed by signs of things to come. Sometimes an invisible divine presence seems to steer him toward his fate, as when a gust of wind knocks the umbrella out of Satomi's hands and into Horikoshi's path. But moments of stillness, like the one that follows the test flight of the groundbreaking Mitsubishi A5M fighter plane, suggest that the search for spiritual understanding can be as fulfilling as finding it.
That uncertain but unrelentingly positive perspective typifies Horikoshi's relationship with Satomi. They first meet during the Kanto earthquake and only reunite years later, not knowing each other's names. Horikoshi and Satomi agree to marry each other only after they consult at length with friends and family. With high hopes, he postpones their wedding until her health improves. That never happens, and the ceremony eventually occurs in haste and in private, so as to reduce Satomi's stress.
Miyazaki dotes on his lovers as much as Horikoshi fixates on his designs. In one tender scene, Horikoshi patiently holds Satomi's hand while making calculations, smoking a cigarette and waiting for inspiration.
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Such tempered optimism makes The Wind Rises a fitting "final film" for Miyazaki. Among the battalion of talented artists that helped execute his vision, sound designer Koji Kasamatsu and Anno stand out. Kasamatsu gives the soundtrack an insanely rich texture, and Anno, the creator of the highly influential apocalyptic fantasy Neon Genesis Evangelion, makes the withdrawn hero lively and sympathetic.
Horikoshi speaks with a matter-of-fact flatness, but you can hear a full range of emotions in Anno's uninflected monotone when he talks with equal enthusiasm about marrying Satomi and studying German aircraft blueprints.
The Wind Rises is Miyazaki's dream, too, an old man's idea of the future that's miraculously undiminished by his age.
THE WIND RISES | Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki | Walt Disney Pictures | Landmark