Released for one week in New York and Los Angeles in December of 2013, in Japanese with English subtitles, master animator Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises returns to theaters for a wider American release with a large ensemble English language voice cast that includes John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Martin Short, Elijah Wood, Darren Criss, William H. Macy, Stanley Tucci, Mandy Patinkin, Werner Herzog and, in the lead role of historical figure Jiro Horikoshi, Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Wind is a gentle, sad film about a strange subject: artistic pursuit of purity and the beauty of form versus the often ugly realm of function. The story of Horikoshi, a pioneer of aeronautical design and the man who developed the Japanese Zero fighter plane used during World War II, it follows his life from childhood to adulthood during the war. His dreams figure prominently, woven into the narrative and inextricable from it, and in them he’s usually chaperoned by Italian aircraft designer Gianni Caproni, who pushes him toward the beauty of design. It's a place where young Horikoshi can remain pure, even as he goes to work, clear-eyed, for Mitsubishi to create machines that will be used in the service of death. At one point Caproni asks his troubled young friend if it would be better to live in a world without the great Pyramids, knowing they were built by slaves and, analogously, a world without flight to avoid war’s use of airplanes. And then the film refuses to weigh in with an answer even as it acknowledges the sorrow of its own moral dilemma.
Ethical ambiguity aside, Wind is a quiet, subtle and impeccable piece of animation for adults and thoughtful young people, and it's at its best when it allows its young artist the opportunity for creative discovery, moments he describes as “an endless road opening before my eyes.” Horikoshi finds inspiration in the curved bones of his mackerel lunch, in the paper airplanes he constructs, in the way he and others lose their hats to the wind, even in design failure. Art practice and the obsession with perfection are the film’s topics for lyrical storytelling. And a measure of how devoted Wind is to its purpose is its willingness to devote screen time to the delight Horikoshi takes in strut fittings, flush rivets to reduce drag, and to prototype flanges that call on other characters to gush about the luxury quality of “extruded aluminum alloy.”
That Horikoshi’s “beautiful dreams” of elegant design find their expression in what he eventually describes as the “cursed” tools of war is never far below the surface of Wind, bathing it in an unusual sort of melancholy. And it’s to Miyazaki’s credit that the film embraces those uncomfortable facts, the complications of loss and destruction and corporate money made from war, all the while maintaining its commitment to the inherent goodness of Horikoshi’s dream with the repeated stanza, “The wind rises; we must try to live.”