The Dreamer’s Journey: A ‘The Wind Rises’ Review

Hey guys— joshspeagle here from Chromatic Aberration Everywhere. Like Myna, I’m a guest blogger here, who decided to answer the call a while back. This is my first attempt at doing this sort of thing, so hopefully it turned out well!

Introduction

I’m currently spending my summer in Japan, which means that I managed to go see Miyazaki’s new movie – Kaze Tachinu (The Wind Rises) – in theaters last week, along with Otomo Katsuhiro’s (the Akira guy) new film Short Peace. As Kylaran from Behind the Nihon Review has already done a pretty good review of Short Peace (although I think it’s a bit too harsh), I’ll be focusing on reviewing Miyazaki’s film here. Let me say right up front that both movies are good and worth your time. I really enjoyed both of them, and regardless of whether you’re looking for something “deep” both movies are well-done and fun to watch. I also want to point out that I’ve only taken a year of Japanese, and therefore spent most of both movies piecing together the dialogue and events from context, so my impressions might be totally off. Even given this, I still really enjoyed both movies.

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Anyways, onto The Wind Rises.

Synopsis

Adapted/supplemented from Wikipedia.

The story starts when Jiro Horikoshi, a young boy living in a provincial town, has a dream about climbing up onto his roof and flying away in an airplane. However, a large, monstrous ship emerges from the clouds, and drops bombs on him. His plane is destroyed, and he plummets to the ground. Later, he has another dream where he meets Caproni, an Italian plane designer. Caproni is surprised that a Japanese boy has intruded in what he thought was his own dream, but Jiro convinces him that this is a dream they both share. After talking for a bit, Caproni tells Jiro that while he can’t fly a plane with glasses, he can build them, which is much better anyways. Jiro wakes up, and tells him mom he has decided to build planes.

Years later, Jiro travels to Tokyo to study engineering in pursuit of his dreams, and runs into a girl named Naoko, who is traveling with her maid. Their journey is interrupted by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which derails the train and causes Naoko’s maid to sprain her ankle. In the ensuing panic, Jiro helps Naoko and her maid find their family, but leaves before they get a chance to thank him. After arriving at University, he joins in the fight to save engineering books from the fires that have broken out as a result of the devastation.

After college, Jiro gets a job working for an airplane company, where his inventions help propel the company to success. He visits Germany, where his pure-hearted interest in airplanes wins over the head of a company. Coincidentally, he runs into Naoko again at a summer resort. Romance ensues, and soon after he proposes. Unfortunately, Jiro soon learns Naoko has tuberculosis, and they decide not to marry until she recovers. However, after some months in an Alpine hospital, Naoko cannot bear being apart from Jiro. She escapes, joining Jiro in company housing in Tokyo. After they tell their story to Jiro’s boss and the landlady, the two help them perform a traditional wedding ceremony.

Jiro’s sister visits him soon after to tell him that this will end badly, since as a doctor she is well aware of the incurable nature of tuberculosis. Jiro counters with the argument that every day is precious to Naoko and that what he does, he does for her.

Even though Naoko’s health continues to decline, she and Jiro enjoy their life together up to the day when Jiro’s company finally tests his prototype for the Zero Fighter, which would become infamous for its extensive use in WWII. On that day, after Jiro leaves for work, Naoko informs the company housing manager that she feels strong enough to take a walk, and leaves to spare Jiro the horror of her final dissolution in the coils of the disease. She leaves three letters for her husband, family and friends.

At the test site, Jiro’s prototype performs splendidly, but in the midst of the run he is distracted by a burst of wind, seemingly an intuition that his wife has died.

Afterwards, Jiro emerging from the horror of war, walking through a field of plane wrecks. Caproni tells him his dreams were nonetheless realized. Naoko appears, in dream one last time, encouraging her husband to live on in the trust she has in him. After she fades away, Jiro thanks Caproni for his guidance and they go their separate ways.

Review in Brief

The Wind Rises is possibly Miyazaki’s best work, and if not, his most nuanced: beautiful, intriguing, and entertaining, it deals with some difficult material and handles it remarkably well.

Further Detail

First of all, this isn’t a kid’s movie. Or even a teen movie. This film is geared firmly towards adults, both in terms of the plot and the overarching themes. And how could it not be, when it’s a fictionalized retelling of the life of the guy who designed the Zero Fighter? This film from the outset wants to deal with some tough source material. Even in the earliest dream sequence, Jiro is literally bombed by an allusion to the events in WWII. Most of his dream sequences end in fire and destruction and plane crashes, coupled with violence and premonitions of war. As he visits different countries, we can even see how the planes are becoming more militaristic over time, or at least are portrayed as larger and more menacing. The entire setting is based in a pre-war era of increasing tension – Jiro’s visit to Germany, for instance, is filled with it, such as when he witnesses displays of Aryan superiority or briefly witnesses a frantic chase in the night. Throughout the film, others continually press him for how he can continue building planes, when his designs and inventions possibly could be used in war. And the film gives no clear answers.

Now, in most Miyazaki films (I think maybe all), there are frequently two conflicts: one a clash of worldviews, of times, and the other a physical parallel or manifestation of it. In Spirited Away, we see the conflict of Chihiro between childhood and adulthood, self vs. family, the real world vs. the spirit world. They all tie together. In Princess Mononoke, we witness the conflict of man vs. nature, mirrored in the actions that take place. We can find similar stories in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Laputa: Castle in the Sky. Ponyo has similar themes, if a little more overt. If we wanted to branch out to include more Studio Ghibli stuff in general, we might say even From Up on Poppy Hill represents a clash of times and worldviews, mirrored in the movement to save the Latin Quarter, the ensuing romantic drama, and the coming of age story that it tries to tell.

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The Wind Rises, however, is fundamentally different from other Miyazaki films. In his other works, you have the heroes working in order to prevent conflict, preserve peace, and come to terms with events. The conflict might be fuzzy, but there are always sides. Here, however, the main conflict is no longer the conflict of two worldviews – it’s the conflict between yourself and the world. Dreams and reality. Worldviews and the world itself. It’s Jiro trying to justify his dreams with the harsh reality of conflict and how the real world will warp his vision. He’s not the hero trying to prevent conflict or stand as an bulwark or intermediary between opposing groups – all the conflict is internal. He simultaneously plays the role of dreamer, middleman, and realist.

Miyazaki doesn’t give us solid answers for how to deal with this type of thing, especially given the contrast of Jiro’s dreams versus the eventual outcome. Throughout the film, Jiro responds to concerns surrounding his inventions by…simply not responding to them (or at least not overtly enough for me to pick upon them). He just does what he likes – building airplanes. Although his dreams frequently end in fiery death and destruction, tinged by the specters of war, he wakes up without flinching, without a cold sweat, as if nothing were wrong. And then simply goes back to building airplanes. In the face of concerns of his coworkers, he simply responds that he just wants to build airplanes. It’s not as if he isn’t aware of the implications of his actions, and if the dream sequences are telling us about his inner thoughts, far from it. But ultimately it’s his dream (although not exactly – I’ll get to this in a bit), and how reality warps it isn’t enough to discourage him from pursuing it. This is a powerful message that we ultimately must decide how we allow our dreams to be shaped by reality. Was it worth it in the end? Only we can be the judge of that.

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Even the romance can be seen as an echo of this them (it’s pretty adorable, by the way – Jiro definitely is a ladies’ man!). Jiro and Naoko fight against the harshness of reality, of the severity of Naoko’s condition, to keep their dream of living together alive. A bastion of hope, trying to ward off what they both know is inevitable. Their doomed marriage emphasizes this contrast. Jiro’s sister questions him as to whether such a marriage is worth it in the end, since she knows it only can end badly. Jiro says that it is worth it, and if the final scenes of the movie are any indication, he is at peace with his decision.

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I also don’t think it’s mere coincidence that Naoko’s passion/hobby turns out to be painting, where the artist simultaneously must capture her dream and put it on canvas in an attempt to share that vision with others. The fact that she paints idyllic landscapes seems to reinforce this type of thinking.

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Now Jiro’s character is something else, since he is the center of this conflict, both as the protagonist of this story and in terms of his personality. He is that guy who always is lost in his own world. Who works on his math and read books during free time at school. Who works late into the night when everyone else has gone home. Who is always looking up, or else playing with his slide rule (yes, those used to be a thing!). In almost every scene of the movie, Jiro is either posed looking down at his books, up/out towards the sky, or sleeping (besides his scenes with Naoko, of course). Society seems to be enamored with this type of passionate figure (in fact Naoko says she loves the way he looks when he works) and Jiro’s character might be inspirational to some and repulsive to others. Regardless, he is a powerful figure – the quintessential dreamer.

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Speaking of dreams, they are a huge part of the movie, not only in terms of pure screen time, but also since Jiro always seems to be caught up in them. “Flights of fancy” actually might be the appropriate term here, because that’s exactly what his dreams always are. The movie transitions smoothly between dreams and reality without hesitation, and one of the main figures throughout the movie, Caproni, is nothing more than a character from Jiro’s dreams, a figment of his imagination (since he never met the real guy). This is the type of stuff Satoshi Kon has been doing for a while (Millennium Actress, for example, does this mixing of reality and dreaming/fantasy extremely well). Maybe there’s something to this here, about the way we perceive the world and the power our ideas and dreams can hold over our lives.

One point I want to emphasize here concerning dreams is a small bit of dialogue from the beginning of the movie. Namely, that Jiro’s dream is, from the start, “shared”. This is a powerful statement. Dreams don’t have to be our own, individual dreams. We can be part of someone else’s dream, participating in a collective vision with those who understand our passion. Someone doesn’t necessarily have to work to achieve “his” dream – we can work together to achieve “our” dream. Our dreams can inspire others, whose dreams can in turn inspire us. By sharing our dreams, we can make bonds that hold us together across time and space, linking us to our brethren all across the world. Dreams are universal. Caproni’s prominent role as a sort of guide to Jiro throughout his life serves as a testament to this. Worlds apart, their dreams are what draws them together.

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An interesting thing to note throughout the movie is the sound effects. As this story is told through the point of Jiro, we gain access to his unique perspective. Namely, that all the airplanes sound…like people! The wind sounds alive. The earth seems alive. And I don’t mean as in anthropomorphizing the animation. This as in like real people voicing the sounds. It’s kind of funny at first (and some were not fans), but I think it’s meant to represent the way that Jiro sees objects and events – as living, breathing things with voices and personalities all their own. That’s just how powerful and permeating his dream is. It affects his entire way of seeing the world.

It’s also interesting to note how the sounds change throughout the film, from off-kilter, harsh, and overbearing at the beginning, implying violence and discord, to more calm, mechanic, and soothing by the end. You’d expect the opposite progression, since as time goes on Jiro becomes more aware of the militaristic nature of his airplanes. Yet the closer he gets to WWII, the calmer and more at peace he seems to become. Even in the final scene, where he walks away from the destruction his airplane has wrought, he doesn’t seem overcome by regret and tears. He just…is walking. Jiro comes to terms with his actions in his meeting with first Caproni and then Naoko, but ultimately he seems to be at peace with, or at least accepting of, the results.

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It is all the more striking to realize that, in all this, there is actually no physical conflict in this entire movie, no mirror to the ideological one. All we have is the conflict of dreams versus reality and the quest to find ways to make the two work. This is why kids found the movie boring while adults really enjoyed it. This type of conflict is not something a child can empathize with, because they haven’t (in most cases) been forced to deal with the magnitude of this disconnect. That’s something that teens begin to discover, college students begin to grapple with, and adults really have to come to terms with on a day-to-day basis.

So, at the end of the day, I can say that The Wind Rises is definitely something worth watching. It deals with some tough source material and ideas, but pulls it off well. Regardless of whether you want to take away a lot from it or just bask in great Ghibli animation (along with a great soundtrack!), it’s a good movie and a moving story. A story about letting your dreams take flight and soar high above the clouds, even when you’re stuck firmly on the ground.

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