The Wind Rises is likely the most complicated film in the Studio Ghibli oeuvre, largely because it operates with varying success on a number of levels: at its most basic, it's a fictionalized version of the life and accomplishments of Jiro Horikoshi, creator of the Zero. On another level, it's a film about artists, their purpose and place in the world (particularly during wartime), run through with complex, often ambiguous themes that will have different meanings and impact for different audiences depending on which side of the war they happened to be on. Thirdly, and perhaps most concretely, it is living animation legend, artistic titan and colossal grump Hayao Miyazaki's bold punctuation at the end of his career, a direct and daring commentary about himself and his life's work.
All that in one film means there's a whole lot to chew on in The Wind Rises, and it's more successful on some of these levels than others, but as a basic narrative, it's pretty spartan. Taken purely on its face, the film is a functional, albeit predictable, biopic in the vein of something like Walk the Line, with a dash of "here's a slice of the most important years in this Great Man's life" a'la Spielberg's Lincoln with some fictional elements tossed in for dramatic and thematic flavor. We get a glimpse of Jiro's formative years, when his very own spirit animal, Italian aviator Caproni, comes to him in a dream and inspires him to create beautiful planes. He meets his future wife during an earthquake indicative of the turmoil of Showa-era Japan. We're given a tour of the hardships of the time en route to montage sequences of airplane creation and refinement, with the occasional fantasy sequence meant to illustrate the way Jiro's high-flying genius brain crystallizes the cacophony of mathematics and slide rulers in front of him into the simple elegance of flawless aerodynamics. On the sidelines is his long-suffering (and completely fictional) tuberculosis wife, Nahoko, who isn't given anything to do but get sick, be tragic, and show us how tortured Jiro is about all of that even as he misses the end of her short life due to his obsession. As a portrait of a man, The Wind Rises functions on the same competent, watchable level as all those Oscar-bait movies previously mentioned; it's largely pleasant and pretty, Werner Herzog shows up, and maybe you'll learn a thing or two about a time, a place, and an important person. Cue the Academy Award acceptance speech and then it's off to repeats on cable TV.
It's dramatically more interesting if you're looking a little deeper, though, and this is where the true quality of The Wind Rises surfaces. Thematically, the film is swimming in potentially controversial material, lionizing a singularly driven man whose contribution to mankind was a spectacularly effective war machine that killed scores of Americans and other Allied combatants in World War II. If you remove that context - and likely spare yourself a discussion drowning in nationalist sentiment - the film raises a very interesting question that's worth exploring. If an artist - in Jiro's case, an engineer, which is a kind of artist - creates a unique work of staggering beauty, marrying form and function like never before, but this work is used only for the purpose of killing people, do they have blood on their hands? How much responsibility does the artist carry when they're working for a military power, using all of their talent to build something where the chief function is death and destruction?
The film seems to have an answer to this question, at least ambiguously - Jiro's moral objection to what his planes are being used for is articulated only in his final dreamland discussion with Caproni, his personified coping mechanism. Jiro says a few lines about how his dream has become the land of the dead, and that none of the pilots who flew his plane came back alive. Caproni reiterates what he's been saying all along - aviation is a "cursed dream", and their creations are "destined to be used for destruction and slaughter", but still, he says, he'd rather live in a world with pyramids than without. The conclusion the film comes to is that incredible feats of engineering - like the pyramids, enormous tombs for the Egyptian ruling class built on the corpses of slaves , and an ingenious airplane with a legacy soaked in the blood of both those who flew it and those they fought - come with a horrible human cost, but this is life, and you can either dwell on all those lives lost at the hands of your creation and live in misery, or you can just accept it as inevitable and go have some wine. "Live!" says the ghost of Jiro's dead wife at the end, pleading with him to let go of the guilt and embrace life.
Whether or not you agree with this conclusion, the discussion itself is interesting to have; Caproni introduces it as a question outright, having come to his own answer but asking Jiro - and indirectly, the audience - what they think. It's a big, complicated and deliberately vague canvas that any number of cinema lovers, animation fans, historians, and devotees of Hayao Miyazaki can project onto. You're invited to come to your own conclusion, but Miyazaki's attitude about all of it is articulated directly at the end, which solidifies the film as not only a very personal one but something that could, with little effort, serve as a near-perfect allegory for Miyazaki's opinion of his life's work and the animation industry. It's no mystery what Miyazaki thinks of his legacy, of anime, and of the impact all that escapism has had on generations of Japanese people. His views are well-documented; it's no accident that you can draw a direct 1:1 parallel between the messages in this film, Jiro's internal struggle and particularly his guilt over letting his passion for aviation alienate him from his family. The most repeated image in the film mirrors the most common images of Miyazaki himself - hunched over a desk or a drafting table, mind lost in perfectionism. In that sense The Wind Rises is heartbreakingly honest. It's a picture of a a living legend whose work is beloved the world over but at the end of it all - and this is Miyazaki's final theatrical film - he looks at his hands and asks "what have I done?". There's no sense in wallowing in depression, says The Wind Rises. In the end, Hayao Miyazaki tells himself to live. He created beautiful things - what the world chose to do with them can't be his concern. The endcap to a storied career by a painfully self-reflective artist, The Wind Rises is wounded and personal - it's auteur theory incarnate.
It all looks spectacular on bluray, although since Studio Ghibli entered the digital age their films have taken on a kind of rounded plastic sheen that The Wind Rises doesn't escape. Everything is billowing, pillowing, bubbling and shimmering - there's nary a hard edge or right angle to be found outside of Jiro's schematics. Among Ghibli's filmography, this one stands out along with Isao Takahata's Only Yesterday as one of the few films they've produced that is undeniably for an adult audience, and so aesthetically it's a lot of walking and talking and relatively plain environments. The flawless transfer allows you to appreciate the incredible animation on display but the usual flights of fantasy are largely absent from this one. From a sound perspective, I preferred the English dub - you're welcome to experience Evangelion creator and Ghibli acolyte Hideaki Anno in the lead role if you like, but it'll probably be apparent why that decision was controversial inside of a few seconds. Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a great job bringing some emotion (and considerably better line readings) to the Jiro character, and the supporting cast - even Martin Short as Jiro's harried boss - fill the rest out nicely. The score is disarmingly pleasant, filled with lilting, wistful tunes that evoke a simpler time. It's a mono mix in either language, a creative decision by Miyazaki himself, so there are no booming 5.1 theatrics to be found. This disc also thankfully avoids the dubtitling problem so many other Disney Ghibli releases have; the English subtitles are a more direct translation of the Japanese rather than simply the dub script. There are a handful of other extras, including a bonus featurette about the dub cast, storyboards, trailers, and most interestingly, a press conference from the Japanese premiere at Studio Ghibli with Hideaki Anno, Hayao Miyazaki and Yumi Matsutoya, who sang the film's theme. The interviewer is bizarrely relentless in having caught Miyazaki crying at the end of his own movie, and his responses are priceless, as is his description of Anno as "one of the most wounded people".
As a film, the importance of The Wind Rises as an artist's final statement about their work really can't be overstated. As a monolithic figure in anime history, Miyazaki is second only to Osamu Tezuka, who to my knowledge never released a final manga that commented directly on his own life's work. It is a fascinating piece for that reason alone, a reason I would imagine will come to define it as the years roll on and academic study of Miyazaki's legacy continues. Here you have a creative titan opening his somber heart to you and sharing his pathos before he crosses over into history, knowing he'll be remembered for centuries or longer. It is arguably the most significant film in his career if you're focusing on his contribution to the world as a whole. Now and forever, there can be no discussion of Hayao Miyazaki without an extensive focus on The Wind Rises and what it meant, and that in and of itself elevates the movie to a role of profound importance.