The ending of a career as legendary and storied as that of Hayao Miyazaki, often called the Disney of Japan by people who have no idea how meaningless a title that is, can be nothing but bittersweet. Miyazaki, over his lifetime, has directed more utter masterworks of animation than any other director living or dead, and many would say he goes to his retirement with a perfect score, his studio’s few stinkers falling at the feet of his son.
It was with some trepidation that I went in to his last film, The Wind Rises, partially because the ending always make me nervous, and partly because his final film seems like a departure from his usual style. Miyazaki is one of the great masters of hiding important metaphors and subtext in what would seem to be kids genre films, slipping them in like a hand grenade deftly hidden in a mob-boss’s birthday cake.
But The Wind Rises seemed from the outset to break away from that. Gone were the fantasy kingdoms, sky pirates, mythical beasts and flights of fancy, seemingly replaced with a historical drama set in boring old reality, where the laws of aerodynamics shoot down any hopes at sky-fortresses and animals only speak when one imbibes the right combination of plant life. It was a change, and this late in the game, change can be deadly, possibly ending the master’s career on an outlier, an aberration in his usual MO.
But The Wind Rises is a Miyazaki film, through and through. A different kind of Miyazaki film, one with a tone, pace and rhythm very much its own, but still a Miyazaki film. And as endings go, a wonderful one.
The film takes place in pre-war Japan and follows the life of aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi, who went on to design the Zero fighter plane. By all accounts, it is a heavily fictionalized account, but one which still firmly situates itself historically, dealing heavily with Japan’s national identity in the years leading up to World War 2, told through the lens of Jiro’s experiences designing aircraft that would soon be used in the conflict.
What struck me immediately about the film is how incredibly quiet it is. And I don’t just mean audibly, though it certainly is that. Scenes will go by with sparse dialogue and and incredibly minimalist score. One extended sequence set during the Kanto earthquake of 1923 has zero musical accompaniment, and a scene that could be played up for high drama comes off as subdued and almost uneventful.
Really, subdued is the better word to describe The Wind Rises, come to think of it. This isn’t a film rife with high drama, soaring emotion and spectacular visual sequences. Moments in other films which would be furiously milked for dramatic value, the soundtrack swelling to a mighty crescendo as characters tearfully profess their undying love, are played quietly and pass by without much fuss. In some cases, this can make the film seem almost anticlimactic, the ending being a prime example. When the credits rolled, I said to myself “oh, that’s the end?” and felt let down for a while. But after thinking about it for a while, a more climactic ending would have felt out of place. The film isn’t trying to be an epic, emotionally charged opera, and similar to Nebraska, I think that’s what I like best about it.
Visually, the film also strives more for simplicity than realism. While something like The Garden of Words pumps its visuals so full of detail and careful shading and movement, The Wind Rises is more straightforward, offering simple but effective character models. Really, I found myself marveling more at the backgrounds, all of them gorgeously realized with a painterly style focused on poetry rather than verisimilitude.
Unfortunately, there is one area where the film let me down. Midway through, Jiro re-unites with Naoko, a character from earlier, and strikes up a romance that largely defines the rest of the film. And try as I might, I rarely believed it. In most of Miayazaki’s other films, romance is something only ever hinted at. At best, romance is implied as something likely to happen in the future for the characters of his films. The Wind Rises breaks from this, to its detriment. I never got a handle on -why- these two characters were in love, what the mechanics of their relationship were. I never saw them falling in love so much as sharing the same overly-idyllic moments I’ve seen in countless other romantic films that completely failed to convince me to become invested in the romance. There are moments that work, moments of quiet affection and tenderness, but these moments seem sadly few. This, I think, is where the film’s subdued style comes back to bite it. The emotional heart of the film feels underdeveloped, anemic even. I had a better understanding of his relationship with a fellow aircraft designer, and even with his boss. His relationship with his wife seems ephemeral, without any clear basis or foundation.
The Wind Rises is not a masterpiece. I have a feeling I’ll take some flak for that, but hear me out. Miyazaki has made his career making masterpieces. What works about The Wind Rises, what sets it apart and gives it a sense of uniqueness and in a way finality in his body of work is its subdued quality, its laconic mood. It doesn’t have the emotional highs of My Neighbor Totoro or the adventure and excitement of Castle in the Sky or the depth of Nausicaa. It is not penultimate or climactic, but it doesn’t have any interest in being either of those things. It isn’t trying to end Miyazaki’s career on a high note, a peak that exemplifies his skill for soaring, powerful emotion or thrilling adventure. It’s a simple film, a quiet film. A stately, understated but eminently dignified bow and exit for a man who has earned nothing less.