As a boy growing up in Japan in 1918, Jiro Horikoshi (voiced by Hideaki Anno in Japanese and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the English dub) dreams of flying and building beautiful airplanes. In his dreams he encounters famed Italian aviation pioneer Caproni (Mansai Nomura, Stanley Tucci in English) who teaches him that airplanes are the means by which man can give flight to beautiful dreams. Some years later as a young man Jiro has a life-changing encounter with beautiful Naoko Satomi (Miori Takamoto, Emily Blunt in English) whom he saves from a cataclysmic earthquake that devastates an entire town. Naoko shares Jiro's sense of wonder and unwavering belief in the power of flight. Through troubled times her love spurs Jiro on as he joins the Mitsubishi aircraft engineering team and grows to realize his beautiful though ultimately tragic flying dreams.
Supposedly the final film from master animator Hayao Miyazaki, The Wind Rises marks the culmination of his lifelong obsession with aircraft and flight in general. Although loosely based on the life of aviation engineer Jiro Horikoshi, who designed fighter planes for the Japanese during the Second World War, the film is not strictly a biopic. The fictitious romantic side-plot was actually inspired by the novel 'The Wind Has Risen' by Tatsuo Hori which Miyazaki absorbed into a manga story about Horikoshi's life. Though the deliberate blurring of fact and fiction may prove jarring for some it is part of an ambitious strategy to convey a profoundly humanistic message. Dealing as it does with a man who was responsible for creating war machines, albeit reluctantly, Miyazaki's film drew its fair share of controversy. Even in Japan, where the film was largely well-received and the highest-grossing release of 2013, some leftists criticized Miyazaki for seemingly celebrating the accomplishments of a warplane designer.
Yet Miyazaki's film is neither jingoistic nor naïve. Indeed, counterbalancing Jiro's rapturous flights of fancy, The Wind Rises also presents us with apocalyptic visions of wreckage and ruin, fire and devastation alluding to the looming tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and all things wrought by the militaristic regime of the Thirties and Forties. Early into the film Caproni states unambiguously that "airplanes are not for making money, not tools of war. They are for turning dreams into reality." Dreams are the central theme in a narrative that blurs the lines between fantasy and reality, but even as The Wind Rises celebrates the genius of Jiro in giving flight to mankind's most beautiful dream it also laments how beauty can be corrupted. However, ever the optimist, while Miyazaki has in part fashioned a fable of how art and dreams can be perverted to ignoble ends he retains faith in their ability to transcend that over time. In addition a key conversation between Jiro and the mysterious Kastrup (Stephen Alpert) - a character who alludes to Thomas Mann's novel "the Magic Mountain" - clears up any ambiguity as to the film's stance against Nazism and the imperialist government, as does an admittedly vague sub-plot wherein the hero is shadowed by the secret police.
Though far from earthbound The Wind Rises seems unlikely to beguile as many mainstream viewers as Miyazaki's early fantasy films. Trading their adventure narratives for an obsession with aeronautics the plot is perhaps less accessible. After a heady take-off the film briefly jettisons the love story and dream fantasy aspects and gets into the nitty-gritty of Jiro's engineering feats which is likely where those less fascinated with aircraft may tune out. On the other hand, when at last Jiro meets Nahoko again Miyazaki deftly intertwines the romance with the achievements in aviation side of the story in stirringly poetic fashion. Scenes such as where the young lovers flirt by playing with a paper airplane impart a magical realist sense that the wind has brought Jiro and Nahoko together. It is really the love story that powers the engine keeping this dream machine in flight. Nahoko seems to embody the progressive, free thinking spirit of pre-war Japan that was swept away by militarism. Inevitably the story ends with flames and wreckage but the purity of Jiro's dream and his love for Nahoko endures. Interesting that Miyazaki chose Hideaki Anno to voice the hero of his final film rather than a professional actor. The celebrated anime auteur and occasional live action filmmaker, whom many consider Miyazaki's honorary protégé, does not imbue his complex and demanding role with the most emotive performance, it must be said. However, it is worth noting that the English dub headed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt is among the most accomplished of any Studio Ghibli title. Music by Joe Hisaishi of course along with a theme song by J-pop legend Yumi Masutoya.