Claude Monet
Claude Monet

The Wind Rises

The Wind Rises review by Neil Clingerman

Rating 10/10 (Masterpiece)

“But he who knows the body, who knows life, also knows death. Except that’s not the whole thing — but merely a beginning, pedagogically speaking. You have to hold it up to the other half, to its opposite. Because our interest in death and illness is nothing but a way of expressing an interest in life…”

Thomas Mann, from The Magic Mountain

The Wind Rises is quite possibly the best film Miyazaki has ever done. At the very least it’s the best he’s done since Spirited Away earned him international acclaim outside of Japan. The last two films Miyazaki did, Ponyo and Howl’s Moving Castle were retreads of earlier work he’s done. They provided excellent entertainment but were missing the emotional intensity and intellectual rigor that first drew me to his work with the dark and epic Princess Mononoke. Don’t get me wrong, they are great films, but not the sort of mind-blowing work that Mononoke or Spirited Away are. This film is one of those works, a powerful, mature, and poignant work from a master approaching his final years.

The Wind Rises is a fictionalized account of a brilliant young engineer named Jiro Horikoshi who was working on developing airplanes for an increasingly militarized Japan during the 1920s and 30s. Along the way we see his inspirations and his environment. His inspirations are dream sequences involving flights of fancy and mentoring from his imagined master, Italian engineer and aerospace magnate, Giovanni Battista Caproni. His environment is a Japan that is struggling to modernize and has a massive inferiority complex towards the West. It’s in this environment that Horikoshi is able to work towards his ultimate goal, the Japanese Zero fighter, an innovative and elegantly designed aircraft that would revolutionize aviation overnight, while at the same time cause much death and destruction. Along the way we find out that Horikoshi, despite engineering a machine eventually used for warfare, is far more interested in the humanist aspects of his work. He sees himself as creating something beautiful and through its beauty moving humanity forward no matter what the consequences. Parallel to this tale Horikoshi meets and falls in love with a sickly girl who is suffering from Tuberculosis, both stories intertwine and combine a realistic biopic [1] with a variety of other literary works as diverse as Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, Paul Valery’s poetry, and Tatsuo Hori’s eponymous novel.

When watching this film it conjures up a very personal bias. I come from a long line of engineers that can trace their trade back to somewhere along the Rhine in Germany. Paralleling Horikoshi in this film, my father originally wanted to fly, but wound up becoming a metallurgical engineer who engineered jet engines due to his poor vision. Growing up I was surrounded by imagery of airplanes and heard talks that weren’t all that different than the technical discussions held in the film. I lived just 30 minutes away from one of the best aerospace museums in the world (The United States Air Force Museum) an annual air shows that put Chicago’s to shame (The Dayton Air and Trade Show) and the original place where the Wright Brothers tested their airplanes before venturing out in Kitty Hawk, Huffman Prairie. This film is a celebration of the aeronautical world, the creativity that an analytical mind can produce, and the appreciation of art that makes us human beings. This film really resonated especially strongly for me, who was raised to be idealistic about the advances of technology and the people who innovate behind those advances to see the humanity and artistry in something that could be conceived as purely technical and mathematical like the technology behind airplanes.

Of course there is far more to this film than my own internalization that makes it one of the finest animated films I’ve seen. One of the most interesting aspects of this film is the stylistic conflict between the Romanticism and Neo-Realism. Neo-Realism was a film movement in post-war Italy that focused on a realistic take on the day-to-day lives on the downtrodden with an uncompromising vision. Miyazaki gets this element of his style from his long time associate and mentor, the “grand master” of Japanese animation, Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies). While Miyazaki’s own natural inclinations are to make silly cartoons, without Takahata, as one of his associates once quipped, Miyazaki would only be interested in “comic book stuff”[2] — Takahata is the one who gave him the depth that underlies much of his lighter and whimsical premises. It is this tension between whimsy and realism that underlies most of his work and gives it its unique combination of depth and accessibility. However, here the focus is on the neo-realist side of the equation and the film shows a much stronger Takahata influence, with surrealist moments of romantic whimsy serving the deeper, far darker story, of the will to live juxtaposed with horrors of humanity. Nowhere does this internal struggle come to head more than in The Wind Rises’ enigmatic and powerful ending which I’ll get to later after discussing a few of the films flaws.

One flaw that gets brought up a lot is the film’s relationship with World War II. I feel this is completely unjustified. One critic went so far as to feel that the film didn’t even address the war properly. I strongly disagree with these statements. While Miyazaki is threading a needle through a very painful and difficult subject, particularly in those nations who were directly in the path of Japan’s imperial ambitions, he does not cross the line either by omission or celebration of the atrocities Japan committed. While he celebrates the very human qualities of inventiveness and innovation that are required of the best engineers, he is always quick to remind people about the dark affects Horikoshi’s actions.

The only reason for so much controversy surrounding the issue of World War II in this film may be more a general issue with Japanese society than with Miyazaki who has on numerous occasions stated a very strong anti war/anti imperialist stance. We are constantly reminded both through visuals and through character dialogue such as Jiro’s dream sequences where Caproni often warns of the dark side of flight or directly by Castorp’s [3] ominous lines about Japan’s future in flames. Just because one character doesn’t face the camera apologizing every 5 minutes about how horrible it was for Japan to commit the kinds of atrocities it did in this era, doesn’t mean that the film gives Japan’s atrocities a pass. The film does quite the contrary, it explicitly is a warning to Japan in a similar time of economic stagnation and increased nationalism to not repeat the mistakes of its past. Japan has a lot to owe up to in regards to its history, but The Wind Rises is not an expression of that broader cultural problem.

A much more convincing case can be made for another oft mentioned flaw in this film: Jiro’s relationship with Nahoko. I felt this relationship was a bit underdeveloped, it was rushed and not all that convincing. However, what it served thematically for the film more than makes up for weaknesses in the overly romanticized relationship that was depicted — the relationship served as a parallel between both the life that Horikoshi gives to his machines and the death that grips them which are the result of factors that are mostly out of their control. The duality of the relationship and its parallels to both Horikoshi’s technical goals and that of Japan’s inferiority complex that drove it into World War II is fascinating and complex, and just about makes up for the lack of emotional depth on the interpersonal level between the two characters. Don’t get me wrong there are a number of fantastic scenes between the two of them, especially a sequence where both are passing a paper airplane to each other, but as a whole the relationship feels forced to serve ambitions far greater than the relationship itself.

Even deeper the relationship illustrates a theme that is currently happening in Miyazaki’s own life, facing his own death. For the last two years he has been suffering from a heart condition that doctors suspect is angina pectoris — a condition that means that if he overexerts himself he runs the risk of having a heart attack or death. Nahoko represents both his childhood experiences with illness and his current relationship with illness. When Miyazaki was a child his mother suffered from tuberculosis, and although she survived, it meant that she was hospitalized for a long period of time during his youth. Miyazaki’s father was a lot like Horikoshi, an engineer who ran a machine shop that made parts for airplanes including the Zero during World War II. Miyazaki is recalling both his mother, the sickly woman suffering and his father the engineer who was passionate about his work but caused great destruction as a parallel to his own anxieties regarding both his life represented by Horikoshi or his father and his death as represented by Nahoko.

One of the ambitions this relationship serves to highlight is the ending, which is both simultaneously celebratory of the joys of life, and the horrors of death. It’s at this point where I’m going to mention that the rest of this review is going to be very spoiler heavy of The Wind Rises and will also allude to minor spoilers from a parallel scene in Miyazaki’s earlier and similarly personal film Porco Rosso. If you haven’t seen this film or don’t want any spoilers skip ahead to the last paragraph.

The ending is extremely powerful, disturbing, puzzling, and oddly uplifting. Horikoshi finishes a successful test run of the Zero fighter, as his wife and lover Nahoko fades away to the last stage of her life resting at a sanitarium. This marks the end of the “real-life” portion of the film, what follows is a grim yet oddly optimistic dream sequence. Chaos is everywhere, planes are bombing a city off in the distance, and aircraft from both America and Japan of all shapes and sizes are floating through the air, while Japanese cities burn in the distance. Horikoshi meanwhile is in an idyllic field full of the fallen ruins of crashed airplanes. He meets with his long time imaginary mentor Caproni who discusses the grim outcome of his beautiful machine. In a particularly powerful moment (in an already powerful ending) we see Zero fighter pilots acknowledge the brilliance of Horikoshi plane as they float off into the sky, joining a seemingly endless number of ghastly white airplanes from all eras — a sort of graveyard in the clouds.

This one sequence alone references what was previously Miyazaki’s most personal film, Porco Rosso. The sequence in Porco involved Marco Pargot’s transformation into Porco through a sequence at the end of World War I where all of his friends have been killed after a fierce dogfight. Like the scene in the Wind Rises, we are shown a vast array of aircrafts floating into the sky and like the Zero fighter pilots in World War II, all of Porco’s friends fly off into the vast graveyard in the sky. This scene was a moment in Porco that gave what would otherwise be a fluffy adventure film, a deep weight and alerted more focused members of the audience to the film’s dark underbelly — a personal story about Miyazaki coming to grips with being middle aged. In Porco Rosso Miyazaki expresses the loss of his own youthful exuberance and idealism that was shattered when the “Oppose ANPO”[4] student movements fell apart at the beginning of the 1970s and his own approaching mortality. Marco/Porco was Miyazaki, which was universally acknowledged to the point where fellow animator Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell) quipped that the pig should just remove his head and reveal an apologizing Hayao Miyazaki underneath [5]. This similar scene in The Wind Rises makes a similar comment on Miyazaki’s own mortality but it is far more immediate and dire, providing an update and expansion to the themes that were touched upon in Porco in a quick sequence of events.

Finally as the film draws to a close, we see what is seemingly the ghost of Nahoko wishing Jiro were with her, and wishing that he lives a full life. Jiro regrets what he’s done but Caproni reminds him that his dream has been realized and to live. These final scenes are reminiscent of a common theme throughout Miyazaki’s work of people living in spite of tough circumstances. It’s echoed in works of his as diverse as Future Boy Conan (his first TV show), the manga version of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and Princess Mononoke. Ultimately this ending represents a culmination of Miyazaki’s work, a coda to his illustrious career.

The Wind Rises has been described as a departure for Miyazaki, a film devoid of the usual fantastic elements that he is famous for. Japanese audiences were often baffled at how hard the film was to comprehend [6], confused that things weren’t spelled out quite as clearly as in the past. While many elements are a departure for Miyazaki, ultimately this film is a culmination of all of his work. If this is his final film, it’s an excellent work to end on a multilayered cinematic triumph for the world of animation. In spite of his flaws, Miyazaki has elevated himself to the ranks among cinema’s greatest film directors, equaling the achievements by his mentor Isao Takahata with such excellent and unorthodoxly mature animated films as Only Yesterday and Grave of the Fireflies. I will be sad to see Miyazaki go, but I’ll be happy that he has ended his career with such a deep and profoundly intriguing film.

[1] Jiro Horikoshi’s own memoir on the subject is Eagles of Mitsubishi: The Story of the Zero Fighter which you can get from the main branch of the Chicago Public Library

[2] Ōtsuka Yasuo no Ugokasu Yorokobi DVD. Studio Ghibli. 2004. (English Subtitles)

[3] Castorp is a character Miyazaki borrows from the dense Thomas Mann novel Magic Mountain which is about a man suffering from TB who visits a sanitarium and contemplates both the nature of time and the various philosophies driving Europe prior to World War 1.

[4] ANPO is a Japanese abbreviation of theTreaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan


[6] Taken from “Otaking” and Gainax founder Toshio Okada’s own analysis which can be bought here: