There is much that is unusual about Hayao Miyazaki’s latest film, which the master says will be his last. It takes place in our own world, not the mythical past of “Princess Mononoke” or the magical universe of “Spirited Away.” It has a mostly adult, male protagonist, unlike those in many of Miyazaki’s other movies. And it has attracted its share of controversy.
But there is much that is familiar as well: visuals so stunning one’s mouth literally drops open, a complexity of characters who are impossible to fully condemn or applaud, and the sense, upon leaving the theater, that Miyazaki is one of the great storytellers of our time.
This new film, “The Wind Rises,” is a counterpart to almost all of Miyazaki’s oeuvre. Where his overriding themes include the importance of nature and innocence, “The Wind Rises” is about the loss of both. If this were any other Miyazaki film, its hero, Jiro, would have been the villain. It is a story of an artist — but one whose moral blindness is at once understandable and indefensible.
Jiro is based on the real-life aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi, who invented the Japanese Zero fighter, which played a significant and deadly role in World War II. But as depicted by Miyazaki, he is not a warmonger but a dreamer: Prevented from being a pilot because of his nearsightedness, he turns to engineering, and quickly becomes entranced by the beauty of design. In several sequences, we see what Jiro sees when he looks at airplanes: the harmony of the mechanisms, the play of wind, and also the flaws in the planes’ design.
As we quickly come to understand, however, Jiro’s artistry is not exercised in a vacuum. Rather, it is put to use by a militaristic enterprise, which he himself knows to be morally suspect. Yet what is he to do? He is of his time and place: He sees his country suffer from earthquakes and economic deprivation, and this is what he is called upon to do. Should he deliberately fail at his task, as Oskar Schindler’s factory was reputed to have done? He would only be replaced and ruined.
The title of the film comes from a poem by Paul Valéry: “The wind rises; we must try to live.” The wind here is literal, of course, as there are likely few narrative films with greater attentiveness to aerodynamics. But it is also figurative: It is fate that pulls Jiro into war, and that pulls him toward and then away from his beloved Nahoko.