In masterpieces like 1997's Princess Mononoke, 2001's Spirited Away, and 2004's Howl's Moving Castle, Japanese writer-director-animator Hayao Miyazaki's formidable imagination has run wild. He has bedimmed the noontide sun, called forth the mutinous winds, and 'twixt the green sea and the azured vault set roaring war. But in his latest and last film, The Wind Rises, he abjures such rough magic. His meditative yet troubling benediction contemplates earth and sky as its sad story of human dreams, human progress, and human love unfolds.
Since he was a boy, Jirô Horikoshi (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the English-dubbed version) has seen the world through thick, round glasses. Although his poor eyesight prevents him from becoming a pilot, he never stops dreaming about flying. During one of those dreams, he meets Caproni (Stanley Tucci), a famous Italian aviator who shares his love for airplanes. But Caproni cautions Jirô against those who may co-opt his visions. "Airplanes," he says, "are beautiful dreams" that should not be used for war.
At first, the ways in which Jirô's imaginative reveries blend with and intrude upon reality promise numerous opportunities for visually dazzling fantasy sequences. In one scene, Jirô is riding on the back of a train car when the ground beneath the tracks starts to wiggle and ripple. As the devastation grows, you half-expect the camera to cut to some slimy, billion-eyed strife demon gurgling in malicious delight at the devastation all around him.
However, here and elsewhere in The Wind Rises, Miyazaki downplays his flair for the horrible and the grotesque. The shifting ground and the demolished villages are Miyazaki's rendition of the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923. This violence is not magic. It is life on earth. In the absence of a benevolent supernatural spirit, people like Jirô and his fellow passengers must pick up the pieces and keep going.
Nevertheless, the desire for flight, escape, and transcendence drive the film. Jirô brings his blueprints to life through study and inspiration, and his soul takes wing once he reconnects with Nahoko (Emily Blunt), a young girl he helped in the earthquake's aftermath.
Nahoko and Jirô's courtship is chaste and classical, which fits Miyazaki's now-anachronistic two-dimensional, hand-drawn animation. The characters' slightly robotic jerkiness as they move around adds to the film's dreamlike mood, and the artificial landscapes breathe and sway with as much life as those in a Terrence Malick film. The leisurely pace, while atypical for a Miyazaki feature, is, along with its attention to period detail, one of the film's most distinctive characteristics. It is proudly and defiantly deliberate in its pacing.
The film's final scenes, which could almost sum up Miyazaki's conflicted relationship to his age, are pensive and potent. Jirô is finally rewarded for his hard work when, in his dreams once more, he sees the clouds dappled with hundreds of his new, aerodynamic planes ascending toward the heavens. But by now, he — and we — knows the destruction they portend. Faced with this knowledge, Jirô's only option is to continue on. For Miyazaki, the rest is silence.
The Wind Rises