Sometimes I see a movie with my mom on a Tuesday night, because it's cheaper to go on Tuesdays. As a movie plays, there are usually interruptions. She'll ask who an actor is on screen, or for a snack or something, since I'm the one holding the food. For the two-hour running time of The Wind Rises, neither of us made a sound. Save for the crunching of popcorn behind us, and some laughter at a specific character design, a peculiar quiet descended on the audience. For the most part, we watched in silent reverence.
It occurred to me that I had never before seen a Studio Ghibli movie in a theatre. This fell upon me like a wave. I had grown so used to seeing these familiar lines and paintings through a small window. It's another experience entirely to have my entire field of vision consumed by a Hayao Miyazaki film. There's really too much in any Ghibli movie, too many background characters, too many details and too many stories to absorb all at once. One of the ways great animation is like real life.
Jiro(Joseph Gordon-Levitt) wants to fly. His need for glasses will prevent him from this. In a dream, he encounters Giovanni Battista Caproni(Stanley Tucci), who encourages a different dream: to build beautiful planes. Jiro is gifted, even his curmudgeonly advisers and friends see that. But his projects end in setbacks and failures. The country is poor in pre-World War II Japan, but such is his co-workers' and bosses' faith in Jiro's vision that he is always shuffled away to a job somewhere, even so far as Germany.
Jiro's life is focused in two directions: building a beautiful, functional flying machine, and the memory of a pretty girl he met during an apocalyptic-looking earthquake in 1923. The girl, Naoko(Emily Blunt) is assisted by Jiro, and then the two separate, without even learning each other's names. But they remain on each other's minds for years.
The facts of the real-life Jiro Horikoshi are fudged for the sake of entertainment. It's unclear how much was really there, or how much is a nostalgic thought exercise. The Jiro presented here exists behind and forward, in the warm nostalgia of the past and in the sleek and dangerous prospect of the future. Perhaps this is how he justifies contributing to war machines. What else could he have done? Starve?
A common theme present here is the frustration of being in a society that knows it is stuck too deep in tradition, but can't figure a way out. Natural selection demands that a species adapts or dies. It's not hard to see a parallel here to the medium Miyazaki expressed this message with: Animation. Much of the work is hand-drawn, pencil on paper, but computers are used on top of the ground work. To do what paper and pencil might not. In a time where computer animation dominates the box office, it's nice to see a movie that still has roots.
It would be a mistake to assume that this film, by a noted pacifist would be glorifying Japan's involvement in World War II, or Jiro's contribution to it. Humanizing someone is not the same as glorifying them. What this film does is show that most of the people involved in war-time are, in fact, human beings. A World War is so much more complicated than "Good Guys vs. Bad Guys", and a Miyazaki film never settles for being simple-minded. In his dreams, Caproni asks Jiro "Would you rather live in a world with pyramids, or without?". Jiro just wanted to create something beautiful. He has blood on his hands, but not nearly as much as Oppenheimer. I don't think this film resents either of them, but rather the entire concept of war as pointless ruination.
It is impossible to watch this movie and not think of Hayao Miyazaki, and how this may be his final directorial project. Whether he reverses that stance is yet to be seen. But it's not hard to see why, if any film would be his last it would be this. A story of a man fiercely talented and dedicated to his craft, at the expense of perhaps everything else. A simultaneous rejection and fondness for "the old ways", and a double-edged look of wonder and fear at the future. This film is as much about Miyazaki as it is about Jiro. A summary of everything he has ever wanted to say about his world and ours. All he ever wanted was to make something beautiful. I don't think I'd want to live in a world without his movies.