Forget Frozen. I know, that’s difficult to do if you’ve got a teenager in the house, singing the songs from its score at the top of her lungs. The tuneful Disney Ice Capades-prototype certainly has caught the fancy of young audiences in America this season. And yes, it won the Best Animated Feature Academy Award for 2013 – but in a just world, it shouldn’t have. The Wind Rises, from Japan’s legendary Studio Ghibli, should have blown Frozen right out of the water.
When the authoritative history of animated cinema gets written, The Wind Rises is the movie that will have made 2013 a milestone year, the one that will be praised and remembered as an exemplar of the form. Online film critic David Ehrlich may have been right when he dubbed it “perhaps the greatest animated film ever made.” It’s undeniably difficult to think of what other extant product might give it a run for its money, in terms of sheer visual gorgeousness.
A labor of love that took decades to realize, The Wind Rises is a fitting capstone to the long career of Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki, the man who elevated Japan’s once-crude anime style of cartooning to a level of true artistic excellence now appreciated around the globe. Among Miyazaki’s directorial efforts are such classics of animation as My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo; more recently, as he tries to ease into a long-threatened retirement, he served as producer and scriptwriter on The Secret World of Arrietty and From up on Poppy Hill.
The reason why The Wind Rises was passed over for the animation Oscar may have something to do with its subject matter: a fictionalized biography of Jiro Horikoshi, a young Japanese engineering genius who designed the Mitsubishi A5M and A6M Zero. Since those aircraft were used to devastating effect by the Empire of Japan during World War II, the film has met with some unease among Western audiences – which is a bit ironic, considering that in Miyazaki’s homeland it was criticized as being “anti-Japanese” for its intrinsically antiwar message.
Though he made his living designing aircraft for the military, the real-life Horikoshi privately opposed the war and his country’s imperialist agenda. The movie’s protagonist (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who desperately wants to fly but cannot become a pilot due to his extreme nearsightedness, longs to create beautiful aircraft to be used for peaceful human transport. But in the prewar years, when Jiro graduates from engineering school and goes to work for Mitsubishi, the military is the only entity handing out design and production contracts.
Jiro’s conflicted feelings about his work manifest in strange and vivid dreams, where his hero, the Italian aircraft pioneer Giovanni Battista Caproni (Stanley Tucci), serves as the Virgil/Beatrice guiding him through his Hell of war and the Heaven of civilian flight. Jiro diagnoses the design flaws in his aircraft plans in dreams as well, watching his creations crumble in mid-flight from a particular point of structural weakness. One can’t help but wonder if Miyazaki is painting his own childhood dreams here, drawn from his upbringing in a family involved in airplane manufacture.
The Wind Rises is a (fictionalized) love story as well, paralleling Jiro’s career with his sporadic contacts with a girl named Nahoko (Emily Blunt), whom he eventually marries but then loses to tuberculosis (in real life, Horikoshi and his wife both lived long enough to raise five kids). They first meet on a train in 1923, as Jiro is returning to university after a break, and exchange lines in French from a poem by Paul Valéry: “Le vent se lève!” “Il faut tenter de vivre!” – whence the film’s title.
The journey is disrupted by the Great Kanto Earthquake, and Nahoko’s maid suffers a broken leg in the derailment. Jiro helps the two young women to safety and then leaves without giving his name, but eventually they track him down. Through such fanciful encounters Miyazaki illustrates significant incidents in prewar Japanese history, including the displacement and poverty brought on by the Depression, yielding insight into the mindset of a nation yearning to climb out of its own sense of technological backwardness in a rapidly changing world.
Unlike the vast majority of previous Studio Ghibli films, which tend to be fantasies aimed at kids, The Wind Rises tells an adult story with sobering themes of death, destruction, loss and moral compromise. Jiro must travel to prewar Germany to inspect prototype aircraft designed by Junkers, and witnesses Nazi night raids on unidentified citizens. Back in Japan, during a solo stay in a mountain resort that turns out to be owned by Nahoko’s father, he encounters a mysterious German expatriate calling himself Hans Castorp (Werner Herzog), after a character in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. Castorp condemns Hitler, says that both Germany and Japan are doomed if they pursue war and extols the power of magical places to help one forget the dark side of human existence. This is not a cartoon movie for small children, by any means.
The frequent changes of scene, including the trip to Germany, also take this film to a new level in terms of immersive, exquisitely detailed visual depiction of landscapes and streetscapes. That has always been Studio Ghibli’s strong suit, but here for the first time its artists get to portray places that look decidedly un-Japanese. If you have avoided anime in the past for its highly stylized “look” (admittedly an acquired taste, though younger folks seem to have less difficulty than older ones in acquiring it), this is the movie in which to take the plunge. You will definitely not feel like you’re reading a manga comic book. It’s more like an endlessly unfolding panoply of Impressionist watercolors, every one a stunner.
Modern young people who claim the term “nerd” as a badge of honor should certainly be able to relate to an animated hero whose weapon of choice is a slide rule. Jiro, the brilliant young engineer whose quest to create airborne beauty transcends the destructive uses to which his creations are put, is the quintessential techno-wonk with a pure imagination and a heart of gold. The Wind Rises could inspire plenty of American teens to work as hard as their Japanese contemporaries. But take them to see it – and see it yourself – for beauty’s sake alone.