With the upcoming release of Miyazaki’s 12th (and possibly final) film, How Do You Live?, we at Flixist will be taking a look at Miyazaki’s career over the decades. By going through each of his films starting from the pre-Ghibli days, we’ll see how the man has evolved as an artist and helped shape the landscape of anime for generations to come. This is Miyazaki Marathon!
When putting on The Wind Rises for my first watch this past week, it was sort of a bittersweet moment for me. Not only would his be the last brand-new Miyazaki film I’d watch until his 12th film eventually gets localized, but it would also be the end of his bi-weekly series we’ve had at Flixist. While I undertook this journey as a way for me to finally see all of Miyazaki’s films, I didn’t realize how much joy it would bring me to analyze and talk about films from a historical standpoint.
Why do I bring this up in the intro to an analysis of The Wind Rises? Well, much like Ponyo, there isn’t a whole lot to really dig into with this film. I would hardly say Miyazaki was simply spinning his wheels here as the film is loaded with the same technical mastery that all of Miyazaki’s productions have had. There are fewer fantasy elements what with the film being a mostly fictionalized biopic of real-life figure Jiro Horikoshi, the man responsible for drafting the plans of the Japanese Zero Plane. No, the fact of the matter is that a lot of what makes this film interesting isn’t contained within the movie.
Much like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, The Wind Rises is an adaptation of Miyazaki’s own manga on the same story. Since completing Ponyo in 2008, Miyazaki had undertaken writing a manga about Jiro Horikoshi as a hobby. An avid aeronautical enthusiast, Miyazaki simply wanted to create something that would pay homage to his passion without being a massive film. He had also considered the subject material as not suitable for children, which actually initially pushed him to want his 11th film to be Ponyo 2. Eventually, Studio Ghibli staff convinced Miyazaki to adapt his manga by telling him “Children should be allowed to be exposed to subjects they are not familiar with.” He was also directly inspired by Horikoshi’s own words, which summed up his entire career by stating, “All I wanted to do was make something beautiful.”
In typical Miyazaki fashion, this isn’t a completely straightforward film. It would have been completely out of character for him to make a straight biopic that had nothing else going on with it. Even in the manga, Horikoshi’s professional career is mixed in with elements from the Tatsuo Hori novel The Wind Has Risen. The most apparent change is that the fictional Horikoshi gets engaged to a woman with tuberculosis while the real-life man had a prolific marriage with six children.
What this film illustrates more than anything is just how much Miyazaki truly loves airplanes. There isn’t much of a story that progresses in The Wind Rises as the film isn’t really about that. It begins sometime in the late 1910s as a young Jiro is dreaming of becoming a pilot. Inspired by the creations of Italian designer Giovanni Battista Caproni, he envisions himself sharing the same dream as Caproni and becomes determined to create something beautiful in his life. Flash forward some years after World War 1 and Horikoshi is in transit to Tokyo Imperial University to learn aeronautical engineering. He encounters a young woman and her maid during the Great Kanto earthquake and aids them. It sets up a reunion later on, but Horikoshi is more interested in getting to his studies.
Directly following this scene, which does establish Horikoshi’s kindness, we cut to a few years later after Horikoshi has graduated. He’s now employed by Mitsubishi and tasked with designing a brand-new fighter plane. While Horikoshi isn’t interested in creating weapons of destruction (much like Miyazaki), he understands that he lives in a flawed time period where it is necessary. A test flight of one of his designs breaks apart in midair, so Jiro and his friend Honjo are sent to Germany to study different forms of aircraft as inspiration. During all of this, a ton of time is spent showing Jiro drafting out plans and discussing those plans with Honjo.
Putting on my film critic hat for a second, the most obvious thing I can draw from all of this is that Miyazaki possibly sees himself as Jiro Horikoshi. While you cannot say under any circumstance that Studio Ghibli’s films have caused harm to the world, Miyazaki never set out to become an international star. He simply wanted to provide the world with beautiful entertainment that would potentially survive throughout generations. There is also maybe a parallel to be drawn with Caproni, who states that all artists have a finite period of time in which they can create. While 10 years doesn’t apply to Miyazaki, at the time of its release, many assumed The Wind Rises would be the creator’s final project. In fact, for seven years after its release, that had been a truth until Miyazaki announced his unretirement for How Do You Live?
That’s really all I have, though. The Wind Rises isn’t as shallow as Ponyo when it comes to deeper meaning, but it’s also probably the most conventional film Miyazaki ever directed. Even something like Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro showed a stronger sense of imagination than The Wind Rises. I understand a lot of this is down to the movie being a biopic whereas every other project Miyazaki worked on was not. Studio Ghibli had previously dabbled in wartime stories with Grave of the Fireflies and it’s not as if the studio never had more grounded stories. It’s just odd that what was considered the big send-off for this visionary and industry-defining director is a film that strips things back to the basics.
When it came time to release the film, however, some groups were agitated by Miyazaki’s decision to focus on Jiro Horikoshi. While the man is well respected for his engineering prowess, the Japanese Zero Plane has been rightly criticized as a death-dealing machine. In Korea, The Wind Rises was criticized for paying tribute to Horikoshi with internet users stating that the Zero Plane represented Japanese militarism. It was also pointed out how the film glossed over the fact that the plane was assembled by Koreans via forced labor. Miyazaki’s response was succinct, if a bit aggrieved: “[He] was someone who resisted demands from the military. I wonder if he should be liable for anything just because he lived in that period.”
In Japan, the film received criticism from the political right as it was perceived as being in opposition to the then-upcoming amendment to Article 9 of the Japanese constitution. While I don’t have enough space to go over the history of that article, it was instituted after World War 2 and had essentially forbidden Japan from using military force in any capacity. In 2014, a year after The Wind Rises was released, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe approved a reinterpretation of the article to allow for a self-defense militia to be formed. To make matters worse for Miyazaki’s dissidents, the director penned an essay in direct opposition to Abe’s plans just a month before the film’s release.
All of this is fascinating from a historical standpoint, but none of that really comes through in the film. Both the fictional and real-life Horikoshi opposed Japan’s military aggression, the same as Miyazaki. Just two films ago, Miyazaki directed a project entirely to voice his dissatisfaction with America invading Iraq. It’s not hard to figure out what the theme of The Wind Rises is. Sadly, a lot of that gets lost because the movie is a mostly meandering journey through Horikoshi’s life with only sprinkles of Miyazaki’s imagination.
Still, as what was considered the final curtain pull on a storied career, Miyazaki could have gone out in a much worse fashion than what The Wind Rises ends up being. Maybe it’s not as poetic or majestic as some of his earlier projects, but you cannot deny that Miyazaki directed this with a passion for a hobby he holds dear. With the best of intentions, Miyazaki delivered a film that can stand next to his entire body of work and not be looked at as the ugly duckling.
For now, this ends our journey with Miyazaki Marathon. His final film, How Do You Live?, will be released in Japan on July 14, 2023. There has been no announcement of a localization, though we can reasonably expect one within a year if not less. When that happens, we’ll finish off this career retrospective by looking at the film.