It was with universal sadness Studio Ghibli animation godfather Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement in late 2013, and that ”The Wind Rises” would be his last film.
Even though Miyazaki is 73, let’s not pass the tissues around just yet – entertainment figures from Kevin Smith to Stephen King have all said they’re chucking it in, but the call of the muse is too strong.
If it is Miyazuki’s final film, it’s far from a low note to out on, but it’s more ”Tales of Earthsea” than ”Ponyo”, ”Howl’s Moving Castle” or the sublime ”Spirited Away”. What makes Studio Ghibli productions isn’t just the eternally child-like outlook and some of the most heartfelt and technically masterful animation on screens. It’s the magical sense of whimsy.
Scenes from across the Ghibli canon (the flooded township in ”Ponyo”, fish swimming lazily in water covering roads and forests, the train steaming across an endless ocean just a few feet deep in Spirited Away) are exquisite in their vision. The animation – as technically brilliant as it is richly warm – does the rest.
That surreality is where both the company and the director shine, but it’s not a big feature in The Wind Rises so if you love it about Ghibli’s other films, you’ll miss it.
Having said all that, the animation is still second to none, and the hand-drawn feel is still a antidote to the likes of Pixar and the American studio efforts (even though Ghibli uses plenty of CGI, every frame seems beautifully hand-crafted). Several scenes of the view out of a moving train show around eight or 10 individual plates moving at different speeds in the background, an effect that embodies everything that’s visually distinctive about animation without trying to look real.
The story is less about fairy tale magic and more about following your ambitions. There are some fantastical scenes, but they’re the dreams and daydreams of Jiro Horikoshi, a near-sighted kid who loves planes and decides as a kid that he wants to be an aeronautical engineer.
After surviving the 1923 Tokyo Earthquake and rescuing a bewitching young woman and her governess, he goes on to university, studies hard and gets a job at Mitsubishi designing fighter planes for the air force.
The plot is almost a standard biopic as Jiro travels across Europe to learn what other government contractors are doing that might pull the Japanese industry out of the doldrums. He stays with Mitsubishi throughout his young life, eventually working on the Zero fighter that gave Japan the edge in Pacific skies during the Second World War.
Circumstances puts Jiro back within the orbit of the young girl he rescued over a decade before and despite the pressure at his job and his part in aviation history, the pair fall in love.
One of the lofty themes woven into the narrative is the idea that the instruments Jiro had dreamed of working on since he was a boy are military in nature. The film never really answers the question of following your dreams to work in a field that makes more efficient killing machines, but it does ask it. Ironically given the running time, it also seems to gloss over everything pivotal that happens to Jiro later in his story, from Japan’s destiny in the war to his personal life.
Ultimately his hero is just as in love with flight as a concept as Miyazaki is. It’s during his dream sequences that he communes with his Ben Kenobi – legendary Italian aircraft designer Caproni, walking along the wings of flying behemoths and musing over the nature of what they do.
Miyazaki has made a personal film about a real figure from actual history, and the work that’s gone into portraying the real-world early 20th century Japan shows. You don’t see many richer depictions of a time and place in any film, let alone an animated one.
”The Wind Rises” feels a little overlong and you’ll be impatient once or twice for the old magic. It’s not quite up to their best, but Ghibli’s best is still a lot higher than most.