Yesterday I saw THE WIND RISES, an animated fictional biography of Jiro Horikoshi, a Japanese airplane designer. The film, conceived and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, adapted from a short graphic novel by Tatsuo Hori, is stunningly beautiful, with well-developed if sentimentalized characters and a perfect meshing of sound, color, visuals and story. I do understand why it didn’t win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, though. Leaving aside the style of animation, which was slightly more old-fashioned than films like FROZEN, I’m not sure the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is quite ready, yet, to give an Oscar to a film about the life of the man who invented the Japanese Zero fighter.
THE WIND RISES is breathtakingly beautiful and quite complex. The story does not steer away from the politics of pre-WWII Japan as much as try to show those politics from the viewpoint of a brilliant engineer who only wants to build beautiful airplanes. From the time he is a little boy, Jiro has wanted to build planes, and he is visited in his dreams by Giovanni Battista Caproni, a famous Italian airplane engineer. The dream-Caproni is suitably cynical about the use of airplanes. He tells Jiro that he wants to build planes that will carry people, but he knows they will only carry bombs. By the way, the beautiful and completely impractical water-based, multi-winged airplane shown in the film was a real thing: the Caproni Ca 60 Noviplano. and it didn’t fly in real life either.
Jiro is led through his life by two things. His idealized love of Nohoki Satomi, who he meets on a train on his way back to the academy in Tokyo is one. A huge earthquake derails the train, and Nohoki’s maid breaks her leg in the accident. Jiro helps them and leads them to their home, then leaves before they can get his name. The earthquake scene and the subsequent fire scene are terrifying and amazing. The film uses a sound halfway between a sigh and a growl to presage the fires; it sounds like a living monster threatening the people. The “aerial” scenes of Tokyo, with houses made mostly of wood, the streets thronged with panicked people, are amazing.
The second guiding force in Jiro’s life is the vision of a simple, graceful, powerful plane. The film touches on the economics of Japan; the lack of metals, a contract with Germany that is bankrupting the Japanese, the fact that they bring their airplanes to the test fields on oxcarts. Jiro grouses that they are “twenty years behind” everyone else.
This movie should be seen just for the use of clouds. Clouds represent flight and innocence. Clouds become dark, luridly colored, to represent fire and later, war. The movie also uses wind constantly as a theme (not so surprising given both the name and the topic). We see the wind blowing hats and clothing, rippling the grass, but in one sequence, Jiro is inside drawing and through the window behind him we watch the wind make the awning billow. It’s a lovely touch.
Jiro is sent to Germany to learn more about all-metal planes, and later, at a Japanese resort during a holiday (where he reconnects with Nohoki) he meets an affable German man who is against Hitler, and against the war. In a later scene, the brass at Mitsubishi, where Jiro works, shield him from the Japanese military “thought police.”
The bittersweet romance with Nohoki is a large part of the story, beautifully drawn and richly written, but like Jiro himself, the movie is mostly fascinated by airplanes. The animation here is lush, but at moments it’s painstaking. We watched Jiro make notes and write down equations, and it looks like a live-action scene of pen and pencil. This contrasts with the stylized scenes at a sanitorium in the mountains, and the beautiful wedding scene where Mrs. Kurokawa leads Nohoki to her bridegroom.
I can’t really comment on how accurate the film is because I know very little about Japan’s history during this time. The movie makes Jiro a hero, but he was probably already that. At the end, in another dream sequence with Caproni, Caproni asks him how the last ten years went. Jiro says, “It kind of fell apart at the end.” Caproni says, “That’s what happens when you lose a war.” They both look to the sky, filled with graceful white planes that look like birds, and Caproni says, “There are your Zeros.” Jiro says, “Not one returned,” and Caproni replies, “There was nothing to come back to.”
This seems like a sad ending and the implication is that Jiro is dying. The next moment, though, he sees Nahoki with her parasol, waving to him. She tells him to live.
The theme throughout the movie is the poetic quotation, “The wind rises. We must try to live,” by French poet Paul Valery. This is the theme of the movie; but it’s also about dreams, and the nature of war.
By the way, Jiro did live, until the 1980s. He saw his country survive the American occupation and become a world leader for a time. He missed the “lost decade.” I wonder what he made of it all, the bespectacled boy who just wanted to build beautiful things that took flight.