Knowing The Wind Rises is expected to be writer/director Hayao Miyazaki‘s final feature film brings with it a certain sense of want, expectation and hope. Miyazaki has given us some of the best animated films cinema has ever seen from films such as Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro and any countless number of personal favorites you and I have beyond that. To imagine such a splendid cinematic era coming to an end brings with it a bit of disappointment as well, which is only emphasized due to the fact this final effort lands with a bit of a dull thud.
Taking his past filmography into consideration, The Wind Rises is a bit of a departure from what we’ve come to expect from the animation icon. It’s a much darker, more down-to-earth drama. The fantastical elements he usually employs are less a part of the story and more a part of the film’s lead character’s dreams. Also, it’s uncharacteristically sloppy in its telling, introducing major plot points almost on a whim with little subtlety or nuance moving from scene to scene and the characters lack the life of the animated world surrounding them. As a result, only the weakest of links connects us to this film as the entire feature feels like a collection of scenes rather than a well-structured narrative.
In terms of its dark tone, I’m sure The Wind Rises will most often be compared to Isao Takahata‘s superior, animated World War II feature Grave of the Fireflies. Dour and meandering, the film reinvents the story of Jiro Horikoshi (voiced by Hideaki Anno), the aircraft engineer behind Japan’s famous World War II fighter aircraft, the Mitsubishi Zero, and his subsequent relationship with a young girl named Naoko (voiced by Miori Takimoto).
Jiro’s story is mostly straight-forward as he dreams of building planes, goes to university to become an engineer and ultimately begins engineering fighter planes. Jiro’s literal dreams, however, involve the manifestation of Italian engineer Giovanni Battista Caproni, creating a metaphorical bond between the two as they have a shared dream and passion for aeronautical engineering. Caproni, as it turns out, is the film’s most interesting character as Miyazaki isn’t bound by Earthly realism within Jiro’s dreams. It’s in the real world that Miyazaki can’t seem to find his stride.
The imagination necessary to bring Miyazaki’s past characters to life clearly bled over into the storytelling, character development and overall sense of wonder he seemed to so easily tap into. Here Miyazaki almost handcuffs himself by remaining so dedicated to presenting a story meant to take place in the real world with Jiro’s imagination only allowed to roam free in his dreams. The counterbalance simply does not work. The dream sequences ultimately become rather repetitive and the real world is about as dull and melancholy as you could imagine.
From a narrative standpoint it’s easy to believe it runs over two hours because it felt like it was at least three, but at the same time it feels as if bits and pieces have been tossed to the wayside. Early on, the Earthquake of 1923, which decimated Tokyo comes out of nowhere. You may be thinking that’s exactly how something like an earthquake should arrive. Understandable, but to that point it comes at a point in the story where we haven’t gained enough of a connection to the characters to fear for what may come next. At the same time, it’s here where Jiro meets Naoko for the first time, but the scene only seems to have been included to instigate that meeting and prove how selfless Jiro actually is. It all felt so forced, it blindsided me and I found it hard to recover.
Similarly, the film bounces through time rather carelessly until we once again meet Naoko, this time all grown up and Jiro is well on his way as an engineer. The two fall in love and Jiro asks her father for her hand in marriage. Naoko wants this so bad but suddenly she lets him know she is afflicted with tuberculosis and would prefer they don’t get married until after she’s recovered. WHAT!?!?!! Up to that point we knew she was sick, but we had no idea it was something as serious as tuberculosis, and perhaps it’s a problem with the translation and how the subtitles read, but it was like slapping us in the face with a major detail presented as if she had a splinter she simply needed pulled before they could stroll through the wheat fields again.
Careless storytelling such as this and the meandering nature of most every scene in-between, no matter how excellent the animation, turns The Wind Rises into a bit of a slog. As much as I appreciate and respect Miyazaki and everything he’s given us over the years it pains me to write that, but I honestly just couldn’t wait for it to end. Had it been a live-action feature I’m sure real actors could have brought life to the otherwise lifeless characters, but as it is I couldn’t help but be thoroughly underwhelmed.