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Hayao Miyazaki’s anime swan song The Wind Rises indulges his passion for flight to a fault, says MacDara Conroy

The Wind Rises is attracting much attention as the final directorial effort by the great Hayao Miyazaki, the man responsible for such anime classics as Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and My Neighbour Totoro. But anyone expecting the kind of semi-escapist magic worlds conjured in those works will likely be disappointed by the project he’s chosen to be his last. Bar a breezy, whimsical intro in which we’re introduced to young Jiro, a bookish, bespectacled boy who dreams of flight, this is by-and-large a biographical drama, and no film for kids.

Indeed, Miyazaki dispenses with the childhood portion of the story as soon as possible, transporting a 20-year-old Jiro from his rural home to university in Tokyo on a journey interrupted by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Amid that chaos and destruction, Jiro plays the silent hero for one young girl and her minder, but that’s a plot thread that disappears into the background as Jiro gets on with his engineering studies and graduates to his first job as an aircraft designer.

As dry as that sounds, it’s actually where much of the film’s passion is directed, for the Jiro in question is Jiro Horikoshi, designer of the Mitsubishi A5M and its successor, the Zero, one of the most formidable fighter planes of the Second World War. And that’s where things get complicated, too, because what you’re effectively watching here is a paean to the brains behind the plane that made Pearl Harbour possible. 

Understandably that’s something American critics were quick to point out (that and all the chain-smoking; it’s period-accurate, but jarring to see the main protagonist of any film puffing away). But if that criticism was couched in any political presumptions on Miyazaki’s part, it was ignorant of his long-standing love of all things flight – previously paid explicit tribute in Porco Rosso, his 1992 adventure about a First World War flying ace who happens to be a pig, and regarded as a lesser film in the Studio Ghibli canon, though it’s one after the maker’s own heart.

The Wind Rises indulges that passion to a fault, especially in the film’s middle section which consists mostly of Jiro designing esoteric plane-nerd stuff, inspired by his dreams of Italian aeronautical pioneer Caproni (his Ghibli aircraft gives Miyazaki’s fabled studio its name). It’s abundantly clear that for Miyazaki, Jiro Horikoshi’s work represented the pinnacle of engineering prowess, something to be proud of in spite of what it was used for. But at the same time Jiro’s life was his work; that’s not much of a tale to tell, so in the latter section Miyazaki borrows liberally from Tatsuo Hori’s short story ‘The Wind Has Risen’ to stir some drama his subject’s private life, reintroducing the little girl saved from the earthquake, Naoko, as a young woman who rescues Jiro from a creative trough and inspires him to do his best work yet – with ultimately tragic consequences.

Sadly this aspect of the film (really, anything beyond Jiro and his planes) betrays some carelessness on Miyazaki’s part. The few female characters range from meek to mouthy, a far cry from the feminist credentials of Studio Ghibli’s most popular productions. The film’s pussyfooting around Japan’s belligerence in the World War years is also difficult to ignore, as Jiro intermittently contemplates the destruction others have wrought with his creations, amid the odd feeble anti-Nazi sentiment. And the drama, more emotionally manipulative than resonant, lacks the depth expected from such a master storyteller. That’s ironic considering this is a tribute to another great creator’s finest work.

Perhaps Miyazaki had his head in the clouds when he ignored such shortcomings. Certainly the film soars when its perspective lifts from earthly concerns to the majesty of the skies, and there’s no taking away from the fact that it’s a beautiful film, with breathtaking visuals on par with his studio’s best (and a fitting score by the dependable Joe Hisaishi). That’s not really enough to absolve The Wind Rises of its errors, but if Miyazaki has made the film he wanted to make, so be it; he’s done enough in his career to deserve this indulgence, even if us fans might have expected more.

The Wind Rises opens May 9th

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