The Wind Rises is Miyazaki substituting Japanese folklore for a history lesson in Japanese aeronautical design. The film opens with what we eventually find out is a dream sequence, and it’s fantastic. A young boy takes flight over turn of the century Japan, eventually encountering weird, Nazi-esque, flying bomb creatures. He engages them but due to a glasses related incident his aircraft is destroyed and he falls to the ground. And then he wakes up.
That’s what this film is. It’s back to reality, an animated, and heightened, biographical account of airplane designer Jiro Horikoshi‘s life. As the film progresses it flirts with dream sequences, both of the regular variety and the daydream kind. In them the film at it’s best, when Studio Ghibli is freed of the constraints of reality, when Jiro has an implied metaphysical connection with an Italian aeronautical designer. There’s an immensely charming sense of wonderment to all of these sequences as well as a hugely effective earthquake which leads to the burning of Tokyo. These scenes are captivating. But sadly they largely disappear before the halfway point.
From there on the design flair exits the film. Sure, the film looks good, all Studio Ghibli works do. The film adheres to their firmly established art style but due to its placement in reality it lacks the art design to set it apart. It feels like a huge waste of talent for Ghibli to simply ape real life plane designs with stale recreations, there’s a very distinct lack of whimsy to it.
In truth it’s an interesting story, but it does drag and feels overlong by the end. It takes place over some thirty, forty years but has trouble establishing the passage of time (Jiro wears four different outfits over the course of the film so he apparently wore the same pink suit for 5 years).
The Wind Rises isn’t necessarily a bad film, it only feels more disappointing in comparison. It, in general, is immaculately crafted, from an artistic point of view and there’s nothing to criticize regarding the voice acting. However there’s an audio design decision that can really only be described as weird and eventually unfitting. Almost all of the sound effects, from wind and ground swells to engine and crash sounds are human made, with the mouths of actual people. This works really well in dreams and at the start of the film but as it goes on and the wonderment starts to drain, it feels off, not gelling with the tone that the film seems to be shooting for, especially because the effect is inconsistent in its use.
The film also doesn’t quite hit emotionally, the central love story feels undercooked; an issue that extends to females as a whole, with a friendship between Jiro’s sister and his wife coming into existence over the course of one line without us ever seeing them together. That’s not say that it’s a complete misfire, there’s a reveal of one character’s sickness that is absolutely fantastic but it very clearly wants you to cry by a certain point without really earning it, the melodrama just doesn’t work. There are also several attempts (though not as many as the RIFF audience would have you believe) at humor and comic relief that are completely flat.
Heady issues also only flash by in the background, major issues relegated to unaddressed subtext, for example why they’re wasting exorbitant amounts of money on planes when people are starving is briefly raised in one scene but is quickly brushed aside, not to mention the untold death these flying machines bring.
Final Verdict: If The Wind Rises is actually Miyazaki’s final film it’s not a high note to go out on. Not terrible by any stretch, only terribly disappointing. Of course it looks absolutely beautiful and will stand the test of time on that front but it’s doubtful this’ll endure as a Miyazaki classic.