If you make a movie about the man who created Japan's Zero fighter, the least you owe your audience is a point of view on the material that's more definitive than a sad sigh. But that's what Hayao Miyazaki went and did with The Wind Rises, his final directorial effort. With it, he put all the artistry and nuance associated with a Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli production into the service of a story that cannot afford to be as naïve as it is about its setting, its main character, or the implications of what it portrays. But it is that naïve, and it's infuriating to watch.
It's difficult not to be this critical. The worst of the Ghibli and Miyazaki films are still miles better than most of the competition. But when they fail, they fail in ways that are far harder to stomach than said competition, in big part because they aim so high — or, if nothing else, because of the pedigree associated with them is so gilt-edged. Tales of Earthsea was a bad movie by any stretch, an incoherent adaptation of Ursula K. LeGuin's works, but having Ghibli and Miyazaki (fils and pere) associated with it only made it land with all the more of a thud. Likewise, from anyone else, especially a live-action director, Rises would have been a mushy biopic without much to recommend it except its historical background. But coming from Miyazaki's hands, the movie's failures are all the more bewildering. It's bad enough that the film is directionless and dramatically shallow; it's worse that for all of Miyazaki's professed infatuation with his subject, he hasn't found a single thing of substance to say about it.
Soaring high, aiming low
The less you know about Jiro Horikoshi — or, for that matter, Japan in WWII — the better the chances you'll find The Wind Rises to be at least watchable, if maudlin. As depicted by Miyazaki, Horikoshi is a gawky young man who compensated for his bad vision with bottle-like glasses, who daydreamed incessantly about airplanes, and who eventually managed to put his daydreaming into the service of working for Mitsubishi, designing planes that would be used to further support Japan's expansionist (shilling for imperialist) ambitions throughout Asia. From the beginning, his dreams are guided and fueled by his idolization of Italian engineer Giovanni Battista Caproni, whose fanciful designs come to life for Horikoshi in his dreams, and who speaks to Horikoshi himself in fantasy sequences. "Airplanes are not instruments of war, nor for making money. They are beautiful dreams!" Caproni insists, and that is ostensibly our cue to believe Horikoshi resents the way his work is used to further military agendas.
The problem with this idea is that the way the rest of the film is constructed completely undermines it. By making Horikoshi a dreamy, self-asorbed, apolitical figure — if also a loving and devoted husband and an all-around nice guy — it only ends up making him look cowardly. It doesn't do this intentionally, but it happens all the same. By putting all of the things that Horikoshi himself should be saying into other characters' mouths, and by making Horikoshi himself into a passive recipient of them, it's hard to say what opinions, if any, Horikoshi holds in this film.
There's good precedent to find this approach mistaken. In real life Horikoshi was quite dismayed by the way his creations, including the Zero fighter, were used for destructive purposes, and he believed nothing good would come of Japan's ambitions for war. In the movie, those ideas are never expressed by Horikoshi himself, except as an echo of someone else's words, or by allowing Caproni to speak for him as a proxy in his dream sequences. But by denying the man himself real freedom of speech — and, by that token, freedom of thought and movement — the movie feels like it's cheating itself out of telling a far more interesting story.
Not that the movie's construction does much for Horikoshi as a character otherwise. Too much of the film is taken up with the kind of action where one thing just sort of ambles into another, and where the only real initiative Horikoshi himself takes is in terms of the immediate problems of his work. Some of that is dramatized vividly and creatively; I particularly liked the way Miyazaki visualizes how Horikoshi mentally stress-tests a particular plane design to destruction, seeing it being ripped apart in his mind so vividly that the real world falls away around him. But the fact that Horikoshi is dreamy and self-absorbed is not the most interesting thing about him, and the movie never seems to understand this. Plot threads are brought up (e.g., a brush with the secret police), but never developed into anything other than background noise.
Most of the second half of the film is taken up with a story that could well have been the whole of the film's plot, and maybe even made into a far more cohesive and interesting story. It depicts Horikoshi courting a young woman while staying at a resort hotel, and there is a wordless sequence between the two of them involving a paper airplane that's delightful stuff, among the most expressive animation of Miyazaki's career. It just begs to be in a better movie, one with a stronger dramatic structure. The film can't even be bothered to come up with anything like a proper ending; instead, it suggests the destruction of war (saying it "depicts" such things gives the movie too much credit, since we see more wrecked airplanes than dead people), has Caproni show up for one more fantasy, and then leaves both Horikoshi and the audience there, with all the closure and grace of a door slammed on our toes.
Pretty on the outside, empty on the inside, blank underneath
Aimless and uninsightful as the movie is dramatically, there's far less fault to be found with how all this has been brought to life. I have yet to see a Studio Ghibli (or Miyazaki) production that wasn't at the top of its game visually, and even though The Wind Rises deals with a far more mundane subject than Princess Mononoke or My Neighbor Totoro, Miyazaki finds any number of ways to make the material vivid and lively. I mentioned Horikoshi's fantasy sequences wherein he meets Caproni on board his planes, sequences that play out like an animated sequence from a Fellini film (a party atmosphere, teeming crowds, glamorous women), or the ones where Horikoshi imagines the way a plane's structure will fail in mid-flight. But Miyazaki also digs just as lustily into real-world moments like the Kantō Earthquake of 1923, where the ground undulates like the ocean and crowds teem through the burning streets. When Horikoshi visits Germany to learn from the engineers at Dessau, the imagery has more than a few hints of German Expressionism: high ceilings, dark streets, long shadows. And even the wholly quotidian material is picturesque and striking, as when Horikoshi marries the love of his life, a tubercular young woman with little time left, with his long-suffering boss conducting the ceremony by candlelight in his house.
It's a wonderful scene, as so many others in the film are, but again, all it does it remind the audience all the more acutely about how it's not surrounded by a story that does it full justice. Some of that I can trace back to the fact that the film is not really intended to be a proper biography of Horikoshi, but rather a kind of fantasia, one where details of his life have been mashed up and free-associated with the plot of a Tatsuo Hori novel (from which came, for instance, the details about Horikoshi's tubercular wife). It's not the lack of historical accuracy that bothers me in such a case — nobody sees Amadeus for the history lesson — but the way all this effort hasn't resulted in a movie with any proper dramatic fire of its own.
With material like this, the result isn't just shapeless storytelling. The more Rises unfolded, the more I was burdened with the unpleasant feeling the movie was backing away rigorously from wormy truths about its subject. I can imagine a movie that more directly confronted Horikoshi's moral complicity, one perhaps closer to a story like Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist. But what we have here is sentimental and spineless, because we're asked to allow Horikoshi's decency towards his wife and friends to deflect any harder questions about his role in his moment in history: See? He's not all bad.
It's all the more frustrating to watch Miyazaki do this, when he navigated rough moral waters so deftly before. Consider Princess Mononoke: there, he gave us a story where the characters did not sport convenient labels, but were embodiments of opposing forces destined to struggle with one another. And yet at the same time he did not try to make us believe good and evil did not exist in such a scenario, only that they could not be reduced to singular labels. Wind is so willfully banal in its world-view, so much a regression from the underlying wisdom and sophistication of his earlier films, it's hard to believe it's from the same man. A Japanese movie this willfully indifferent to its own deeper meanings is downright unhealthy, especially at a time when Japan is making greater noises about reasserting its use of military force in the world, and its right wing is arguing all the more vociferously for regressive social policies.
I can imagine a counter-argument to all this: It's the last film by a legendary director; he made an aesthetically excellent piece of work from a subject he was clearly passionate about; why beat him up? Well, sure — except that it's easy praise to say any movie looks good, and that just because someone cares deeply about a subject does not mean they're well-equipped to treat it with respect. The fact that Miyazaki has, say, been infatuated with flight through the whole of his career is not the sole reason he was able to make that theme absorbing in his other films; there, he combined it with strong storytelling that was informed by a point of view on its material.
It's an irony, and a shame, that for his final bow as director, Miyazaki would give us a movie that is little more than some gorgeous scenery in search of a point of view.