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The Wind Rises

Jiro (Hideaki Anno/Joseph Gordon-Levitt) dreams of flying and designing beautiful airplanes inspired by the famous Italian aeronautical designer Caproni (Nomura Mansai/Stanley Tucci). Nearsighted and unable to be a pilot, he becomes one of the world's most accomplished airplane designers, experiencing key historical events in an epic tale of love, perseverance, and the challenges of living and making choices in a turbulent world. (From Disney’s official synopsis)

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Following more than three decades of directing, writing, and producing some of the best animated films ever made, Hayao Miyazaki announced that The Wind Rises would be his final work on a motion picture (he is going to keep making comics, apparently). It is rare that any kind of artist gets the chance to choose their ultimate work of art. Most great filmmakers either peter out into obscurity as interest wanes (theirs and/or the public), lose their knack as they age, or simply work themselves to death. Animated films take considerably longer to make than live-action films, so a man of Miyazaki’s age (73 years) that specializes in the medium should be aware of his limits. He’s also probably aware that his work peaked with Spirited Away – though any other filmmaker would be proud to make movies half as good as Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo. Whatever his reason for retiring, he seized the moment to make his most personal and (arguably) thematically mature movie yet – a multiple decade-spanning look at the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the inventor of the Mitsubishi G3M bomber plane (for the record, Miyazaki originally wanted to make a sequel to Ponyo, but producer Toshio Suzuki talked him into adapting his own manga version of Horikoshi’s life).

Miyazaki’s love of aviation has coloured many of his films, including the fictional flying machines of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986), the extensive flying sequences in My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), and the entirety of Porco Rosso (1992). Even the studio name, ‘Ghibli,’ refers to an Italian Caproni-brand aircraft. The Wind Rises focuses his obsession in a specified historical context, instead of filtering themes through allegory. Porco Rosso did take place in a close approximation of the real world and references historical conflicts, but The Wind Rises is a biopic that paints the dreams of a single man as an integral achievement for the Japanese people. It’s an unlikely choice for an animated feature. Usually, this kind of tale is reserved for Hollywood Oscar-bait or secretly jingoistic kung fu movies, but there is a tradition of high-profile true stories in anime, including Keiji Nakazawa’s autobiographical Barefoot Gen (1983) and Isao Takahata’s semi-autobiographical Grave of the Fireflies (a non-Miyazaki Ghibli feature, 1988). In more recent years, other animated films from different foreign territories have embraced biographical stories with substantial connections to war. Movies like Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s Persepolis (2007) and Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (2008) framed astronomically complicated political situations in human perspectives.

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The subject matter isn’t inherently kid-friendly – the tone is sometimes quite bleak, the pacing is lax, the characters are mostly adults with purely adult problems, and the dialogue is brimming with existential sorrow – but The Wind Rises is still very much a Miyazaki film and includes a number of fantasy sequences. He encourages some incredibly playful imagery from his animators and opted to create a number of the most indelible sound effects using a chorus of human voices. Many of the memorable sequences, like the Great Kanto Earthquake, fuse the organic, almost blobby qualities of the hand-drawn animation (which is more an extension of what the director was doing with Ponyo than a return to his ‘classic’ form) with not-so-subtle reminders of the grim reality of the era. The film pulls the audience into an impossible environment where the cartoonish qualities don’t negate the weight of the authentic story they surround. Even the surrealistic dream sequences have a more evocative, symbolic quality that adds heft to the drama. As the film progresses, the fanciful imagery gives way to more verisimilitude and, before we know it, we have been ushered from whimsical animated fantasies into cinematically grounded images that would feel at home in a prestigious, live-action Hollywood epic.
Unfortunately, everything special about The Wind Rises is shaded by the choices Miyazaki made in his historical adaptation. He was interested in telling a story he thought had significance on its own merits and, while extolling Jiro Horikoshi’s creative drive against devastating odds, he chose to ignore the bigger ramifications of those inventions.  Horikoshi’s planes were a vital part of Japan’s imperialist machine. Aside from neglecting the sheer weight of Japan’s cruelty as it occurs in the peripherals of the story, the film overlooks the fact that the Zero planes were used to murder people in the name of expanding an empire – not defense – and that Mitsubishi used Chinese and Korean slave labor to build them. Miyazaki found himself in hot water with his more conservative countrymen for occasionally protesting Japan’s horrible treatment of its own citizens during the Sino-Japanese War and WWII, but this small contention paints the Japanese people as the victims of the era. Barefoot Gen and Grave of the Fireflies also frame WWII from the point of view of suffering citizens who occasionally decry their leaders’ choices (while also being careful to not completely disparage the Allied soldiers they were fighting) and ignore the effect those choices had on the people throughout Asia that the Japanese were attacking. The difference is that those films were centered on children, not brilliant men that were advancing the war effort.

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Ethical and moral quandaries aside, Miyazaki’s avoidance of the issue is disappointing, because he isn’t challenging himself or his audience as much as he could have. After years of addressing his pacifist beliefs with fictional characters and fantasy allegories, he is finally referencing a real-life situation. His films are chock-full of sympathetic villains that have let ambition and pride overwhelm their nobility, so why deny Jiro Horikoshi a place as the director’s ultimate accidental antagonist? Instead, Jiro is an almost boringly nice character that is all but incapable of caring about anything but his airplanes. Anytime someone brings up the quandary of creating beautiful things that will ultimate kill people, he waves it off with a hint of sorrow and goes back about his business. The most tone-deaf and callous moment occurs while Jiro discusses construction with his staff. He jokes that his designs would be perfect without the drag of guns, pauses, then cuts right back into rhetoric about creating powerful fighter craft.

On the other hand, there is an impending sense of dread throughout the film that culminates in a fairly potent final declaration against war and I do believe the specter of war is represented pretty well in the film’s tone and imagery. Perhaps some of us aren’t giving Miyazaki the credit he is due for pressing the issue beyond the subtext. Perhaps he expects his audience to carry baggage into the film and wants us to connect those dots for ourselves. But the vague recognitions and justifications only intensify the sense of hypocrisy and it probably would’ve have been better left to our determination. For the sake of argument, it’s also worth noting that no American studio would risk political ire to make a family appropriate historical western that observes the slaughter of the Native Americans, so perhaps context should be considered. The Wind Rises is ultimately both a celebration of and warning against the obsessive pursuit of artistry, in both its themes and images, which might make it the most compelling way an artist of Hayao Miyazaki’s calibre could end his career.

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The Wind Rises is presented in 1.85:1, 1080p video. It looks like most of the director’s other films in terms of its animation style and the way the cells blend into the hand-painted backgrounds. As mentioned above, the animation has a very organic and hyper-clean quality that lends itself to the Blu-ray format’s ability to separating planes without a great deal of edge noise or bleeding. Digital motion blur is occasionally implemented during the more dynamic flying scenes, but the backgrounds are rarely blurred for the sake of foreground focus, which creates an incredibly busy and constantly moving canvas. The grounded and sometimes somber subject matter often restricts the colour palette to naturalistic hues, like browns, greens, and steely blues, and these are sometimes further muted by stormy weather and smoke/smog from war and earthquake sequences. But this is still a cartoon (one that includes a number of dream/fantasy sequences) and is just whimsical enough to include a number of searing azure skies, lush vegetation, and vivid clothing highlights. The crisp elemental separation helps differentiate between shades of black and grey that could’ve easily blended into mud on a SD disc.

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Miyazaki chose to mix and present The Wind Rises in mono sound, citing that a single channel mix would showcase the audio he felt was most integral to the story. This Blu-ray includes the original Japanese and English language dubs, both in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. The English language mix was supervised by ace Pixar and Lucasfilm sound designer Gary Rydstrom, who has had a hand in most of Disney’s best Ghibli remixes. Miyazaki’s appreciation of silence doesn’t necessarily require the single channel limitations (the official byline on the mono sound includes the statement ‘within Japanese culture, silence is an important and highly respected part of communication’), but the mono rarely does the film any favours. Directional enhancements aren’t really missed (many of Miyazaki’s films avoid moving out of the center channel), especially not during the more abstract and heavily layered moments (the ones created mostly with human voices), but a stereo or surround sound elements could’ve offered some roundness and depth to the more incidental noise. Surprisingly, the dialogue is also too flattened against the more incidental effects for my taste. Despite Rydstrom’s influences, the English track multiplies the issue a bit by turning up the dialogue elements a hair too loud. Joe Hisaishi’s Italian and French-themed score doesn’t suffer much from the lack of stereo channels, mostly because he works with instruments – mandolins, accordions, et cetera – that blend together at lower volume levels. Note that this disc includes subtitles, not dubtitles.

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  • The Wind Rises: Behind the Microphone (10:50, HD) – An interview with Gary Rydstrom and the English language cast, concerning the characters and the logistics of the dub.
  • Feature-length watercolor storyboards (2:06:30, HD)
  • Original Japanese trailers and TV Spots
  • Footage from a press conference (1:22:50, HD) – Miyazaki, actor Hideaki Anno, and singer-songwriter Yumi Matsutoya uncomfortably discuss the film to a roomful of journalists. The discussion is ultimately too civil and modest to cover any of the film’s politics in great detail, but the director does talk about his want to avoid war imagery – at one point claiming that it would’ve made it appear like ‘a cheap documentary.’

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The Wind Rises is a great movie with some major thematic problems. Viewer mileage will depend on many factors, including patience for the deliberate pacing and tolerance for the lack of an implicit anti-war message. But even those unwilling to accept its muddled morality will find themselves challenged by an imperfect film that still elicits strong and genuine emotions. Disney’s Blu-ray looks fabulous and sounds pretty good, despite Miyazaki’s choice to mix the film in mono. The extras include a fluffy English language EPK, a storyboarded version of the film, and a really uncomfortable press conference with the filmmakers.

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For a more decisive (less wishy-washy) look at the controversy, please read this Village Voice article.

Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.