In 1998 Douglas Adams published a sweet, funny essay called "Riding the Rays," about an excursion to Hayman Island to try a kind of underwater jet ski device called a Sub Bug because it afforded an opportunity to swim with manta rays. And manta rays are cool.
He wrote of his encounter with the creature: "As it moved, shimmering and undulating its giant wings, folding itself through the water, I felt that I was looking at the single most beautiful and unearthly thing I had ever seen in my life. Some people have described them as looking like living stealth bombers, but it is an evil image to apply to a creature so majestic, fluid and benign."
And yet stealth bombers, abstracted from their purpose, are aesthetically beautiful constructions. But appreciating this without considering their function has certain psychic consequences. The hero of Hayao Miyazaki's final film, The Wind Rises, now opening with an English-language soundtrack, designs an airplane for the sake of beauty, though he knows it will be used to destroy cities.
It's a highly fictional account of the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the aeronautical engineer who designed the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter aircraft. In a childhood dream, the airplane-obsessed Jiro is approached by Italian aeronautical engineer Giovanni Caproni, who walks with him on the wings of a preposterous old triplane in flight. "Are you living your years to the full?" Caproni asks. Jiro wakes up determined to become an engineer.
Miyazaki, who also makes comics, is well known for drawing vast portions of his films himself. This is no fading talent with his best years behind him; the characters are singular and closely observed, and the animation is rooted in naturalistic human movement and gesture. The backgrounds are masterfully painted, and evoke Japanese and Western European locations during verdant summers, bleak winters, and across a range of climates. The film is gorgeous.
The story spans 30 years. As an adult at Mitsubishi, Jiro creates inspired designs for individual plane components that soar off the page in cross-hatched pencil. Oblivious to office politics or current events, he exhibits autism-like hyperfocus on mathematics and engineering, improving on the designs of the temperamental but benevolent head engineer (a very Wallace Shawn-like performance by Martin Short). The director pursues familiar themes of technology and its relationship to nature. Captivated by the curve of a fish bone, Jiro incorporates its arc into his design.
Voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jiro is oblivious to his fellow engineers and insensitive to his family, always forgetting his sister's scheduled visits from home. Miyazaki's version of Jiro is a man who lives for little but the beauty of aircraft, who dreams all night of fantastic planes and spends his days perfecting the calculus that realizes them.
The director complicates his twining of history and fiction by taking his title, and his inspiration for Jiro's romantic partner, from that of a novel by Tatsuo Hori, which has nothing to do with Jiro Horikoshi or airplanes. The book concerns the Japanese tuberculosis epidemic during the same period as this film's story. Jiro meets his fiancée, Naoko, while on holiday, shortly before she's checked into a sanitarium for TB; her prognosis is grim, and her time is precious, so they marry as he's finishing his designs for the Zero. The arc of their romance is deeply felt, and Jiro's usual obliviousness falls away.
Miyazaki has generated controversy for celebrating the life of a genius whose most prominent creation was responsible for thousands of deaths, but also for the film's elision of World War II, and a general failure to apologize for, or even acknowledge, Japanese military atrocities. While the film is genuinely upsetting to many people, these criticisms place insistence on a strict historical context that disregards the artistic one — specifically that of Miyazaki's whole body of work to date, which celebrates pacifism, communion with nature, and the cultivation of beauty, often against violent or terrifying backdrops.
The Wind Rises is a distinctively Miyazaki narrative in its gentleness, its gorgeous art direction, and in the unexpected emotion that flowers out of his often coolly distanced storytelling. It also bears his mark in its frequent evocation of awe: moments when ambient sounds vanish and the universe shifts implacably around the characters. While Jiro is riding a train bound for college, the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 rocks the countryside, the ground heaving in rolling waves, breathing, less a tectonic event than a monstrous presence. There may be no director better at communicating universal vastness.
Well-known for the scope and scale of battle scenes in his previous films, Miyazaki includes none here, save for the isolated explosions of planes in Jiro's dreams. "Japan is going to burn," he tells his friend Honjo (John Krasinski), who replies that the two aren't arms merchants; they just want to build airplanes. They've abstracted the weapons from their purpose, seeing only their beautiful lines.
The war rumbles over a distant horizon the myopic engineer can't see; his schematics and formulas are closer at hand, and within his field of vision. Like most of Miyazaki's films, The Wind Rises has no primary villain or Manichaean struggle between Good and Evil; though Jiro is bound for loss and sadness, asking a director known for his embrace of ambiguity to make a blunt, declarative political coda seems a little artless.