Flixist Discusses Review: The Wind Rises


After the credits rolled at the screening of The Wind Rises at this year’s New York Film Festival, Hubert and I spent the next hour talking about the film, what we liked and didn’t like, where we thought it succeeded or failed, and where it is a fitting final feature for acclaimed director Hayao Miyazaki. And while we didn’t transcribe that conversation, we thought continuing it for our readership to see would be more meaningful than the traditional review/second opinion system we usually follow. And if you’d like to pull back the curtain a bit on our thought processes and see how opinions on the film have and haven’t changed, videos of our initial impressions, taken mere minutes after we left the theater, can be found here (Hubert’s) and here (mine).

And with that, we present the newest installment of Flixist Discusses Reviews: Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises. Unsurprisingly, Hubert’s responses average about twice the length of mine.

[For the next few weeks, we’ll be covering the 2013 New York Film Festival, now in its 51st year. Flixist will provide you with reviews, video, news, and features on some of the best films on the festival circuit. To check out all of our coverage of NYFF51, click here.]

The Wind Rises Festival Trailer

The Wind Rises (Kaze Tachinu | 風立ちぬ)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Rating: TBD
Country: Japan
Release Date: November 8, 2013 (NY/LA); February 21, 2014 (Limited); February 28, 2014 (Wide)

Alec: I think the way to start this off would be a discussion of exactly what The Wind Rises is. In both of our videos, we referred to the film as a biopic, and to some extent it is: It’s the telling of a person’s life. But it’s not really a biopic in the way that most people think about it. Much more than others, it’s a life that has been fictionalized and truncated to the point that maybe “biopic” is just the wrong word. The film is based on a manga made by Hayao Miyazaki, so maybe we should look at it from that perspective? Although I feel like some of my issues (which we will undoubtedly get into later) will be less forgivable if that’s the case.

Hubert: Well, the film is based on a short story by Tatsuo Hori that was then adapted into a manga, and I’d assume both the short story and the manga also take liberties with the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the man who helped design the Japanese Zero fighter plane. I think the best way to think of The Wind Rises is as a fictional account of an actual person’s life in order to explore the idea of an artist’s creative impulses. It’s an odd hybrid of history and fiction, and in that way, it reminds me a bit of the writing of Jim Shepard, who’s one of my favorite living authors. He’s done multiple stories centered around historical figures (e.g., F.W. Marnau, Aeschylus, John Entwistle from The Who, Godzilla special effects master Eiji Tsuburaya) and uses their voices or their situations in order to explore issues of work, loneliness, family, and so on. I think that’s what’s kind of going on here with The Wind Rises.

So in some ways The Wind Rises is just an old-school and earnest (and clunky) biopic like The Life of Emile Zola, but I think it’s more like Miyazaki’s final statement of artistic intent. In other words, it’s a fictionalized telling of the creative life of Hayao Miyazaki wearing a Jiro Horikoshi costume and set in the first half of the 20th century. Whew. It’s also bookended by periods of destruction that lead to Japanese cultural reinvention and modernization — the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 and of course WWII, though the latter is only implied rather than dealt with directly.

Alec: You know, I think that last line really sums up The Wind Rises. To some extent, everything “Is only implied rather than dealt with directly,” and the few things that are dealt with directly are the result of things that have to be implied. The relationships between characters have to be implied as do character motivations. Nothing is ever really clear, and that is to the film’s detriment. Some of the characters appear and disappear without any explanation (that German guy comes to mind), and I was left wondering if I missed something, but I don’t believe I did. I think it was just too vague.

We talked about whether or not it was a cultural thing, and I don’t think so. The Great Kanto earthquake wasn’t something I knew about, so that whole thing struck me as odd, but it wasn’t really problematic for me, and even if it had been I wouldn’t feel good criticizing its lack of context, because the film is for a Japanese audience that at the very least is peripherally aware of that event. I have no doubt that some of the other things I didn’t immediately understand would make total sense to the average Japanese viewer, but I don’t believe for a second that most people watching that movie in Japan or anywhere else will know who that German guy was supposed to be.

On the Train

Hubert: In terms of the German character, I can’t say whether or not he was based on an actual historical figure, but he seems to function as a counterpoint to the Nazis that Jiro meets while he’s overseas in Germany. During those scenes in Germany, we see troops barking orders and then chasing after someone whom I can only assume was a Jew or one of the other groups that the Nazis persecuted. The benign German character is by contrast critical of Nazi power and even predicts the horrors of the coming war.

The good German made me notice how Jiro himself seems totally detached from any sense of Japanese nationalism, which I imagine must have been pervasive in those days. Caproni, Jiro’s creative mentor in this film, also seems apolitical and not particularly nationalistic even though he designed war planes in real life. So you have the good German, Jiro, and Caproni. Notice that they’re all representatives of the Axis powers, and yet they are like these progressive characters with post-war mindsets uprooted and made to inhabit a sanitized version of pre-WWII Japan and Germany.

Yeah, the trio makes an interesting counterpoint to the atrocities of the Axis powers, but to me the sanitization of the horrors of nationalism in the lead up to WWII makes the film extremely problematic as an historical work. Then again, this can’t be taken as a purely historical work. This is a strange metaphorical space and we’re really seeing Miyzaki’s personality and ideas about artists (and his own opposition to war) inhabiting this era. Yet even then, I’m surprised there wasn’t more exploration of Jiro’s feelings about Imperial Japan. Jiro’s planes are his beloved works of art that his own country will then use to kill people — the war and any resulting anguish are off screen.

Your mention of vagueness made me think of the weird shape of The Wind Rises. I described it to a friend as being like a cloud. It’s shifting and never constant, it looks like one thing one minute and another thing the next, it’s pushed by invisible imperatives, there are heavy moments followed by wispy ones. For better or for worse, the movie is a cloud in motion across the sky.

Getting back to character motivations, I know we both had some big issues with the romance in the film. I think once that thread picks up, the movie came apart for me and never quite recaptured the lyricism of its first half.

Alec: Yeah, if I had to pinpoint one thing that bothered me about the movie it would be the romance. It seems like it’s there because the film needed a romantic subplot, and it’s both the lack of characterization and the ridiculous illness that make it feel that way. Their love comes out of nowhere (a few minutes of throwing paper airplanes hardly justifies anything, especially considering the German guy gets in on that and there wasn’t any threesome action that I saw), and her illness comes straight out of a Nicholas Sparks novel. I should never be able to seriously compare a Miyazaki film to a Nicholas Sparks novel, but there you go. It happened.

And it’s really a problem because when everything else gets compressed by the romance. It’s such a major part of the film despite its total lack of legitimacy, and if it were removed a lot of the other, more interesting parts of the film could have been better developed. Miyakazi’s narrative priorities were really off this time around.

Unnecessary Romance

Hubert: I actually think the romance between Jiro and Naoko is where there’s pertinent thematic material to Miyazaki’s overarching narrative, but I don’t think it works because it’s all so condensed and rushed and presents a major shift in outlook from the first portion of the film. This might be one of those romances that works better on the page since you can compress more emotion and internal thought into text than you can in a few scenes in a film. You bring up Nicholas Sparks, but if this film sticks close to the source material — whether it’s the manga or the short story — maybe it’s supposed to be a bit more like those two side characters in Jane Austen’s Persuasion who fall in love simply through proximity and time.

As far as what the romance is doing in The Wind Rises, I think on the one hand, the romance and melodrama puts me in mind of those old-fashioned biopics I mentioned earlier, the sorts of stories where love at first sight (or love by accidental reunion) is accepted. In addition to that, love is just what Jiro needs in that time of his life given the professional failure he experiences just before he checks into that summer resort. He’s not outwardly devastated, but I think Miyazaki makes it clear that Jiro’s not feeling great about his work by using a few choice shots and the weather. It’s Naoko who spurs Jiro to create again, which makes her his muse. Just as Jiro is a kind of analog for Hayao Miyazaki in this film, I wouldn’t be surprised if Naoko is some sort of analog for Miyazaki’s wife Akemi Ota.

So this is all a means of addressing the primary concern that many artists face: how to establish the proper balance between your work and your personal life. Serious artists are constantly making sacrifices since their time is so valuable and so limited. And so the combination of major illness and the idea of a brief window of artististic potency are meant to ratchet up the stakes of every decision that Jiro makes, i.e., time is always of the essence. Again, even though I can understand the impulse, I don’t think this is handled artfully. This is the over-shaping principle that’s common in so many biopics. Give a life too much shape, it feels artificial; too little shape and it meanders. Somehow The Wind Rises manages to do both. Even then, the better scenes between Jiro and Naoko contain a kind of magic — perhaps hokey, perhaps old-timey, but mostly there’s just a childlike joy to it — that for me felt genuine amid all the extraneous bits, sort of the like a great hook in an otherwise so-so pop song.

I’m rambling, but obviously I’m more forgiving of The Wind Rises than you are. A big part of that is because I think Miyazaki consciously made this as his last film and I’m viewing it in that context. Basically I’m reading this film like the overworked final chapter in a novel by Hayao Miyazaki. I couldn’t imagine The Wind Rises being a good entry point into Miyzaki’s work for a newcomer. Unrelated: the Yumi Matsutoya song during the end credits, “Hikōki-gumo (Airplane Cloud),” is my favorite song to appear in a Miyazaki film.

The Wind Rises

Alec: I see what you mean, and I guess it really is an issue of poor execution here rather than a mistaken intent. The love could have been really good maybe, but it didn’t have time to breathe. It just appeared and then the rug was pulled out from under it in exactly enough time to manipulate the audience’s heartstrings and without nearly enough effort to justify doing so. I liked the moments with the two of them (the hand-holding while he worked beside her was particularly nice), but it never felt real.

But enough about that.

You undoubtedly know more about Miyazaki’s work than I do, which means I’m not particularly keen on discussing The Wind Rises‘ place in his canon, but I definitely understand what you mean. I’m not necessarily willing to forgive its faults because he is trying to jam everything into one last statement, but it is what it is. I think it boils down to this: I want The Wind Rises to be longer. Like, a lot longer. I was thinking of that the entire time. At 126 minutes, it’s on the long side for an animated film, but it’s still far too short. Keep the love subplot because I do understand why it’s important (even if I think it’s less interesting than most of the rest of the film), but expand everything else and it all becomes a more consistent and logical film to follow.

If we look at it as an overstuffed last chapter, it’s like he put up a first draft and then instead of expanding it filled in the margins with notes until the pages were completely full and almost illegible. The chapter could have gone on for longer. Hell, it could have become its own separate book (this metaphor fell apart ten sentences ago), and he would have had more room to expand on his last thesis. Because it does seem like he rushed to fill the space, and in doing so he forgot to close the door.

Paper Airplane

Hubert: A three-hour historical film would have been an unexpected way to finish his feature film career. Taken as a whole, I can spot three distinct segments to The Wind Rises that would make for solid hour-long chunks, the middle part being the courtship of Naoko. But if it took five years to make The Wind Rises in its current state, it probably would have taken six or seven to make a longer film. Thinking about it that way, it adds an extra dimension to the idea of time in The Wind Rises and how Miyazaki was concerned with time in real life. With Jiro, every moment he spends with Naoko is precious, but it’s also time away from work that he needs to get done as soon as possible; Miyazki probably felt the pull toward family while also feeling an obligation to tell this story as best as he could even though he could have spent more time on it.

I guess that’s another reason why I see this more as a final statement about being an artist and being Miyazaki rather than just a biopic. Sometimes it’s silly to try to find connections between a person’s life and that person’s creative work — fittingly, the primary sin of so many biopics is to make easy connections between a person’s life and his or her work — but with Miyazaki getting older, this sort of reflection seems natural. When Miyazaki explained the reasons for his retirement he said, “[In the past,] we could make films in four and five months, but during that time, my staff and I were younger, and we often said that creating these movies was a once in a lifetime event. Now, you can’t demand your staff work at this pace forever, because people get older and they have to choose between work and family.”

Like any overstuffed thing, there’s loads of beauty amid the many imperfections. I loved the look of The Wind Rises, especially when Jiro is sketching or writing equations (it put me in mind of Da Vinci), or those dreams that allow Jiro to meet Caproni with his flying machines, or those brief moments where we get to see the inner workings of wings and engines, as if Jiro is slowly understanding the hidden structures of objects that lay just beneath the surface. Whenever there’s sky in any shot, it was fascinating to read the character of the clouds and how those helped define the eventual mood of the scene. Maybe my favorite little detail was how there was a human voice incorporated into the sound effects during moments of destruction. The Great Kanto earthquake is this sinister whisper, and a malfunctioning engine is like exasperated breath.

The Wind Rises is the sort of movie I’d like to watch again just to enjoy the beauty of it now that I know the imperfect shape of the narrative. If I had to score this first time through, I’d give it a 77 (Good) because its beauty and its best moments are pretty transcendent even if there are some frustrating choices in the film’s execution. I’ll give you the last word since I’ve said more than enough already.

Alec: You expect me to follow that? Not a chance. I basically agree with you, although I’m less willing to forgive its faults, so my number is somewhat lower (as you can see below). It would be very interesting to see the movie again, though, because then I could focus more on the details (like you, I thought the human element to the sound effects was excellent) and not be surprised by the broader strokes. I expect some of my friends will want to see it (and I will tell them that they should), so I’ll probably find out sooner rather than later.

[The Wind Rises will screen at Alice Tully Hall on Saturday, September 28th and Friday, October 4th. For tickets and more information, click here.]