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Uncertain Flight: Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises (2013) – Blu-ray review

September 24, 2014 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

A masterful swansong for animation’s greatest visionary – provided you’re prepared to accept that a visionary might not always see the subtleties of real life.

1 Wind Rises

The Wind Rises
(Hayao Miyazaki, 2013)

“Artists are only creative for ten years,” reckons aircraft designer Giovanni Caproni in The Wind Rises. Clearly, though, nobody has told Hayao Miyazaki. Never mind about his career in manga and anime before his film debut in 1979; the three-and-a-half decades since represent the greatest body of work in animated film. The Wind Rises is the now-retired director’s valedictory… yet while it comes close to being amongst his greatest, it is marred by a catastrophic failure to deal with its subject.

Then again, this isn’t the typical Miyazaki film so he should at least be applauded for his ambition. It’s a biopic of another aircraft designer, Jiro Horikoshi, and thus a work of freedom and unabashed auteurism, the result of the director’s lifelong passions and instincts.  It’s tempting to view this as the origins story for Miyazaki’s own imagination, given how replete the film is with visual and thematic echoes of the director’s earlier work. The flying sequences, of course, are a near-constant throughout his career, with the wartime setting and Italian links most closely aligned to Porco Rosso. Jiro’s childhood home might have been beamed in from My Neighbour Totoro. And, while rooted in reality, the recurring use of dreams to highlight Jiro’s creative talents at least give the film one foot in fantasy.

And yet… such charm and frivolity ought to have no place in this story at all, given that Jiro’s designs (especially the Zero fighter used in the Pearl Harbor attack) became the killing force of the Japanese army during WWII.  The result is not without controversy, and certainly troubling. Another filmmaker, maybe, might have chosen a less complex protagonist, perhaps somebody who downed tools and was persecuted for refusing to aid the war effort. Post-Schindler’s List, such a film is easy to imagine, and it probably wouldn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know about right and wrong. But Jiro couldn’t stop, driven by creative obsession to fulfil his design even knowing the uses to which they would be put. Again, another director might have made that a hellish torment, but Miyazaki looks to the design, and the design is beautiful.

Thus the film is a study of the contradiction between Jiro’s beautiful dreams and the tarnished reality – neither a denunciation of Jiro’s complicity in the war, nor a white-washing of his place in the ghastly history.  Creation and destruction are intertwined throughout the film, and Miyazaki’s heavily fictionalised narrative finds echoes of the central dilemma. A stand-out sequence charts an earthquake ripping a city apart, not only a foreshadowing of the war but also an intimation of life and death on a cosmic scale, and the Sisyphean task that any designer faces when even nature stands in the way. Later, the (also fictional) love story is doomed by wife Nahoko’s tuberculosis; again, beauty is under threat.

It’s the response of an artist and a dreamer and, befitting Miyazaki and Jiro’s shared passion, the perspective is from the skies, too remote to deal with the bitter political realities.  The result falls between two poles (too real to match the visionary genius of Miyazaki’s best, but too naïve to rank alongside more engaged studies of wartime, not least Studio Ghibli’s own Graves Of The Fireflies).  Yet,  flawed though this might be, at least Miyazaki is honest, and there remains warmth and even optimism in the symmetry between the subject matter and the customary virtues of Miyazaki’s filmmaking: the detail, the texture, those skies.  This is, ultimately, a story about the act of drawing, and the film acts as Miyazaki’s last chance to let us see the blueprints for how a career can last well beyond a decade.

The Wind Rises,

is released on Blu-ray and DVD on Monday 29th September.

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