Hayao Miyazaki’s Oscar-nominated animated feature The Wind Rises, opening here in the Valley this weekend, is one of the most visually and kinetically beautiful movies I’ve ever seen. Miyazaki has claimed that this dizzying paean to the glories of aviation will be his last film, and if so, he’s certainly going out on top, although it’s a morally complicated, troubling triumph.
In content, the movie is a heavily romanticized biopic of Jiro Horikoshi, the aeronautical engineer whose designs for Mitsubishi in the ‘30s led to the Japanese warplanes of the WWII era. According to Miyazaki’s script, as a boy Horikoshi idolized the Italian aircraft designer Gianni Caproni, and the movie dramatizes this hero-worship by making them “friends” through shared dreams of riding in the sort of huge, elegant, multi-winged passenger airplanes that Caproni envisioned, like his magnificent and hopeless nine-winged “Noviplano.” The young Jiro wears coke-bottle lenses on his face, and thus glumly knows he won’t be a pilot, but his dream mentor tells him that designing airplanes is a far more prestigious pursuit anyway.
As a child in rural Pennsylvania, I lived along the runway of a small recreational airpark and flight school, and while I never had aspirations to be a pilot, I can vividly recall dreams not very dissimilar to Jiro’s—blue skies full of impossibly large, roomy flying contraptions. This imagery gives The Wind Rises an epic grandeur, as do, on the darker side, such scenes as a depiction of the 1923 earthquake that demolished Tokyo.
But the film also has, or at least it had for me, a riveting perceptual intimacy. Miyazaki’s intense primary colors, the subtlety of his light-and-shadow effects (and sound effects), and the eccentricity of his compositions deliver the past to us with a joyous hallucinatory immediacy that live action filmmaking, no matter how fine, couldn’t equal. There are moments, lots of them, which feel, somehow, like time travel. Strictly as cinema, The Wind Rises is heavenly.
It’s not that simple on the level of content, however. In one of their dream conversations, Caproni also tells the young Jiro that airplanes aren’t for war, or for making money; that airplanes are, rather, “beautiful dreams.” Well, yeah, but….
Herein, of course, lies the difficulty with The Wind Rises. The charmingly told hero struggle we’re watching is the development of the Zero, the airplane that attacked Pearl Harbor and brought so much misery and death to so many people, Allies and Axis alike. Toward the end of the film, Jiro and a friend are discussing the uses to which their design will likely be put, the other countries against which it will be used. “Japan will blow up,” says one, little knowing how literally right he will be, as a result of another, less aesthetically pleasing innovation in weaponry in another country.
“We’re not arms merchants,” says the other. “We just want to build good aircraft.” That justification might be acceptable from a boy, but from grown men, fully aware of the implications of their work, it just sounds obtuse.
Of course, anyone can find themselves on the wrong side of a war, and even if you’re on the “right” side you’re still peddling ruin and slaughter to the innocent if you’re a weapons designer. It doesn’t necessarily invalidate you morally, but there’s something a little queasy about celebrating the pure creative spirit that led you to build flying death machines.
That Miyazaki fully recognizes and acknowledges this difficulty, maybe even regards it as the point of his movie, doesn’t entirely banish the queasiness. Like Miyazaki’s other works, The Wind Rises is a movie to be savored, even loved. But it carries with it a stubborn unease.
Check out my list, on Topless Robot, of 10 Terrible Earlier Movies by this Year’s Oscar nominees. Enjoy Oscar night, if you care. Come to think of it, enjoy the night, whether you care or not.