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Miyazaki’s Last Great Premiere: “The Wind Rises”

We finally got around to seeing Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises” on Thursday night. As Miyazaki’s last film, there was quite a lot of pressure on it from our perspective – we hadn’t read much about the plot, but we’re big enough Miyazaki fans that Catbus was part of our wedding theme.

Up front, our protagonist is both geeky and kindhearted – over the course of the film you’ll find almost no flaws in his character, which might be tiresome to some. Still, you can’t help but love him when he awakens from a dream as a child and announces bleary-eyed to his mother, “I’m going to be an AERONAUTICAL ENGINEER!”

The traditional care given to Miyazaki’s films is immediately evident when our protagonist receives a magazine with the date clearly visible, onscreen just long enough to place this narrative at a specific point in the past. I always appreciate this sort of streamlined storytelling. Of course, you can also tell it’s a Miyazaki film because the protagonist’s sister is essentially drawn as an older version of Ponyo.

Miyazaki films either seem to exist in worlds of magic or worlds of loss – sometimes both. You could only consider this film to reside in both worlds if “magic” is equated to “mathematics”. The first half of the film in particular could be interpreted as a love letter to engineering as a discipline. As someone who works in a STEM field, that was refreshing and also fascinating, since this is STEM work long before digital technology factored into the equation. The audacity of experimentation in flight is called into sharp relief when planes are wheeled to fields by oxen after being planned by hand. And I rarely see slide rules featured prominently in animated features, so that was… novel.

While it’s a male-dominated landscape due to the time period, I did appreciate the camaraderie depicted. The protagonist’s best friend may work at the same company, but there’s no cutthroat competition. At one point, Jiro gives a set of new sketches to his best friend for use in his plane, because the original plane that was to use those designs was shelved. The friend replies, “I’ll keep these, but I won’t use them until you get to use them in your own work.” And I was strangely energized by watching a scene where the design team rallied late at night, sharing designs. Even though Jiro was the chief designer, he went out of his way to showcase the ideas of his peers, even with the bosses watching. They were all united towards a common cause.

Building on that theme, there’s a larger theme honoring fate and hidden meaning between human connections. The movie may not be in a magical world, but there’s something magical about the central reunion story (I won’t share any more details.)

The childlike spirit in many Miyazaki films is hidden here – unless you’re listening carefully. I slowly came to the realization during the film that all of the plane sound effects were voiced by humans. Humans making propeller sounds, humans making engine whines and bangs, humans making metal creaking sounds. It makes the flights seem otherworldly, but also takes away a bit of the majesty that might be there otherwise. Perhaps that’s the point, since we’re seeing this journey through the eyes of a man who was once a bespectacled little boy dreaming of air travel.

There’s an ethical quandary built into this biographical piece. Though our “hero” creates beautiful things, it is with the knowledge that these things, created for the military, will be used for violent purposes. Any of us who studied STEM fields at big universities, myself included, probably encountered at least one project where we had to reconcile excellent real-world project experience with the knowledge that it was funded by DARPA or some other military agency. There are varying situations and it’s a personal decision for all of us – the film decides to take a middle stance, glorifying the science but also hinting at the immediate negative impact it can have on the world.

The last thing that really struck me about this film was the bafflingly horrifying depiction of Germans. Not in a metaphorical sense – the Nazis are always horrifying and rightly so. But there’s a seemingly reformed German who turns up later in the film as a friendly force struggling with the same ethical questions. However, this man’s face is utterly bizarre – massive pointed beak of a nose, huge head and oh God, the EYES! His eyes are drawn with large, wobbly, grey irises that seem to flutter, always flickering in the light, drawing you down into their terrifying pupils. There were shades of this depiction in other Germans shown in the film, but they were never onscreen for more than a few seconds. This man’s eyes nearly had me looking in the other direction. Do we have that effect on other cultures? Or was that a choice meant to indicate some other sort of otherness?

If you’re wondering whether this film is for your kids – well, it’s certainly no Ponyo. Dark themes of war and loss plus constant onscreen smoking (no, seriously, CONSTANT) and extended sequences about math and engineering mean you’ll definitely want your kids to be in the double digits unless they’re particularly obsessed with airplanes. It’s beautiful, subtle, and thought-provoking. It might actually be good fodder for a date night – it’s an epic wartime romance suspense (with action sequences), with a little something for any adult.

Throughout the film, Jiro has engaging dream encounters with a version of his aeronautical engineering hero, Caproni. Jiro’s dream mentor has a line near the end of the film that took my breath away in the recent context of world news. “Airplanes are beautiful cursed dreams – floating waiting for the sky to swallow them.” (possibly slightly paraphrased; couldn’t find this reprinted to confirm it.) Watching these engineers create flight from pencil sketches and herringbones, one is reminded how flight is really a miracle on a razor’s edge.

It makes me sad that this is the last film we’ll see from Miyazaki, or so he says – we’re passing from an era where his next work is unknown to everyone into the neverending period where his films are only new to some of us. Enjoy his last great premiere, and then go back and enjoy some of his earlier classics.

(And on a tangential note, if anyone can point me towards a print of Mei and the Kittenbus… well, I’d be infinitely obliged.)

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