The review has spoilers.
For a director who scales such soaring heights of joy and beauty in his work, Hayao Miyazaki has still managed to be remarkably consistent. He may not be as stylistically adventurous as other animators, but it’s hard to care when each of his films is so beautiful and relentlessly charming.
So when he announced that The Wind Rises would be his final film, what else would it be but a well-judged capstone on an illustrious career? Like his scripts for real-world dramas Whisper of the Heart and From Up on Poppy Hill, a period piece about the design of Japanese fighter planes was a change of pace. Surely, however, it would still offer the wonder and poignancy of his more opulent fantasy films.
Sadly, that faith was misplaced. For his final film, Miyazaki has misjudged his story and his audience. The Wind Rises is an engineering saga and a love story, but neither is terribly successful. We follow real-life aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi as he joins Mitsubishi and creates planes that will be crucial to Japan’s World War II campaign. Miyazaki’s audacity in making a film about industrial design when he’s so renowned for his imagination could have paid off handsomely. Animation could illuminate the wonder and awe of mechanical innovation even for those without an affinity for it.
But Miyazaki has failed to make it remotely captivating, as if assuming we’re already enraptured by the topic and are as eager to see it dramatised as he is. We’re given little help in understanding Jiro’s craft or the nature of his achievements, rendering much of the film impenetrable and dull. The unusually bland supporting characters don’t help, giving us little reason to invest beyond the typically lovely animation.
More troubling is that Miyazaki allows the character to not be too bothered that his planes will be used for war. He finally realises the cost in a brief coda that at last addresses the war directly but in half-hearted fashion. Jiro looks ahead to the death his invention will cause and feels bad, but he’s assured that he still created something remarkable. He’s told that he deserves to move on and savour life, as if congratulating him for at least thinking a bit about what he’s done. Why make a film about the intersection of art and war if it won’t be fundamental to the protagonist’s arc?
Miyazaki’s evasion of the destruction of World War II is not only offensive, it tears the rudder off the film. Why should we care about Jiro’s progress with so little sense of where it’s situated in Japanese history? Without that context, this is simply the story of a brilliant designer being brilliant and encountering few professional hurdles. A peaceful country interlude, although set before the war, disconnects the story even further from the real world Miyazaki has finally decided to direct a film about.
We might care a little if Miyazaki had cast a proper actor in the role. Instead, he chose Evangelion director Hideaki Anno, whose minimal acting experience proves fatal. His marble-mouthed voice and flat intonation make Jiro a stereotypically impassive engineer. That may have been the intention, but such a performance would demand a nuance of expression to reveal the personality beneath that stoicism, which Anno is incapable of. For once, I’d like to at least sample the dub given it has Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the same role.
The love story offers the film’s few moments of poignancy aside from Miyazaki’s typically beautiful shots of landscapes and nature. Unfortunately, so little time is devoted to it that their romance unfolds as a matter-of-fact inevitability, lacking any pretense of a true relationship. It’s certainly hard to fathom what Naoko sees in the robotic Jiro. No sooner have they reunited, he’s asking her father’s permission to marry her. Other relationships are just as rushed and underdeveloped: Jiro’s sister bonds with his wife instantly off-screen so another character can cry when things go bad. The time spent on plane design means there’s little time to dedicate to a relationship we’re clearly meant to care about. Naoko is a sweet but hollow character herself, a shadow of Miyazaki’s usually engaging and determined female characters.
Ghibli fans should see The Wind Rises, but only for the imagery and the typical soothing ambience. This may be the last time we see Miyazaki animation of a significant length, and its beauty and wonder can be savoured in even the weakest film. But for the endpoint of a career, this leaves a lot to be desired. How did Miyazaki’s final film end up being his worst?