A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
73-year-old animator Hayao Miyazaki has announced that "The Wind Rises", his latest film, nominated for an Academy Award, will be his last. It's sad news. Audiences have flocked to see his beautifully imagined and lushly magical films since "Princess Mononoke," his first international hit in 1997, and the worlds he has given us, the colors and sights and sounds, the plots and characters, create a powerful legacy. In "The Wind Rises," the fictionalized story of Jiro Horikoshi, Japan's World War II airplane designer (he was responsible for designing the lethal "Zero" fighter plane), one character says, staring up at the racing clouds in the sky, "Airplanes are beautiful dreams." Miyazaki's films are beautiful dreams, too. His presence is already missed.
Young Jiro Horikoshi is a nearsighted boy who has fantastical dreams of flying airplanes, swooping above the green fields of his country, the landscape unfurling below him like a magical land of possibility. Being a pilot is closed to him due to his eyesight, but he decides to go to school to be an engineer and design those "beautiful dreams" for others to fly. Through this endeavor, he is encouraged by an Italian aircraft pioneer, a Count Caproni, who is a muse-like character appearing to him in dreams, showing him the glorious possibilities of flight and the gigantic flying machines he has built, giving the young Japanese boy a sense of how far one can go in one's imagination. The dream has to come first. The reality will then follow. This is how it has always gone with those who push technology forward.
Jiro's quest is single-minded, but not so much so that he does not notice the upheaval in the world around him. Jiro mourns that Japan is "backward," they are 10, 20 years behind the rest of the world, they still need to use oxen to pull the aircraft out into the fields for a test run. They make their planes out of wood, not metal. How could they ever compete with the technological powerhouses of the world, like America or Germany? Additionally, there is political and economic unrest, desperate peasants swarming towards trains passing through, throngs of people flocking to the cities looking for work. After getting a job with Mitsubishi, Jiro is sent to Germany as a delegate, to learn about their airplane technology, to get tips and ideas to bring back home to Japan.
All of this takes place in the 1920s and 1930s, as the world arms up for war. "The Wind Rises" is a mild anti-war film (in an early scene, when Jiro beats up a school bully, his mother scolds him saying, "Fighting is never justified."), perhaps too mild, considering its topic. But Miyazaki sticks close to Jiro's journey, following him through his dreams, his schooling, his investigative trips to Germany, and his sweet courtship of the girl Naoko, who will become his wife. Still, with all of that, "The Wind Rises" has an uneasy undercurrent about what these "beautiful dreams" will become when used in warfare. Planes then turn into nightmares, raining death down on the people below.