By Alistair Ryder
“The Wind Rises” is a film of contradictions- it is the most thematically rich and beautifully designed feature of director Hayao Miyazaki’s entire career, and yet it is also his weakest. It may keep to Studio Ghibli’s beloved visual house style, but the script is oddly humourless, and more unforgivably, boring.
The film is a largely fictionalized biopic of Jiro Hirokoshi (voiced in the English dub by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who designed Japanese aircraft during the Second World War, despite his vocally anti-war stance (this pacifism is likely what made him a hero to Miyazaki). Sadly, the film doesn’t pay any attention to these contradictions in character, instead offering a romanticized view on the trials and tribulations of being an artist. Early on in the film, comparisons with “Ratatouille” are all but inevitable, with its philosophy on how anybody can contribute great art not too dissimilar to the overriding motif that “anyone can cook”; this was oddly disappointing seeing that the most influential animator of the modern age now pales in comparison to the films he’s influenced, and consequently is now playing second fiddle to them.
The film is so ingrained in the history of Japan in the early 20th century that many elements are likely to feel lost in translation for international viewers, and nothing more than an oft-repeated history lesson for Japanese ones. In the most obvious of these, a defecting German tells Jiro that in the ensuing war “Japan will explode”- a reference to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings that feels incredibly misjudged, especially in a film which ignores many of the protagonist’s real life war contributions.
The physical appearance of Jiro is reminiscent of the appearance of a young Miyazaki; something deliberately done to leave you in no doubt this is his most personal effort. It could easily be argued that it mirrors Miyazaki’s own career, something fitting if this is to be his final film. In one scene, Jiro is told that artists are only creative for ten years of their life; Miyazaki has spent four decades churning out masterpieces, so it could be easily read as a suggestion to give up before becoming complacent. An interesting comparison would “Nymphomaniac” and the career of its director Lars Von Trier- instead of being a four hour porn film as advertised, it’s a four hour deconstruction of his filmography that’s impenetrable (pun intended) to those unfamiliar with his work.
My favourite Studio Ghibli films are the ones that jettison fantasy to focus on social realist elements (“Grave of the Fireflies”, “Only Yesterday”, “Whisper of the Heart”), but work because of character and/or situation relatability; this feels like such a personal film to Miyazaki that it risks leaving the audience emotionally unengaged. I was left thinking of the Stewart Lee joke about why he doesn’t watch Breaking Bad; “why would I want to watch a man make a career out of something clearly beneath him”? This could easily relate to Jiro’s struggle between creativity and commerce, or Miyazaki making a film that is clearly the weakest in his filmography. The animation may still be far more beautiful than any CGI monstrosity Hollywood is offering (due to the “personal touch” of hand-drawn animation), but the script suffers from too many contradicting themes, which at least is fitting for a film based on the life of a conflicted individual.