The Wind Rises is the great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki’s first film to take place in a recognizable, non-magical world entirely populated by humans. It’s also his first to draw explicit (if loose) inspiration from the life of a historical figure: the brilliant World War II–era aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi. But then both fantasy and reality have long informed Miyazaki’s work: he has always had a sharp eye for the clunky, unbalanced movement of physical objects in space, while his stories owe more to fables and fairy tales than histories or headlines.
In the past, Miyazaki has celebrated the free play of the imagination as a buffer against industrialization (Spirited Away), environmental devastation (Princess Mononoke), and war (Howl’s Moving Castle). Like those films, The Wind Rises is a declaration of faith in the power of dreams to streamline work, life, and love into a single, frictionless whole—an ideal represented here by Jiro’s design for an impossibly light and fast fighter plane. The trouble is that, in the war-torn world of The Wind Rises, dreaming in the abstract about lightness and grace is dangerously close to dreaming up new and better ways to kill.
As the film goes on, its focus shifts away from Jiro’s professional life and onto his marriage to Kayo, a beautiful young painter with an angelic disposition and a fragile state of health. Miyazaki fills out their storybook romance with an abundance of finely etched details: she, curled up inside a sanatorium sleeping bag, writing a love letter as isolated flakes of snow drift through the opening; he glancing nervously across a restaurant in her direction through the speared leafy greens of a fellow diner; the two of them standing outside, their clothes billowing softly in the breeze.
In its polished, ritualized purity, their love story might seem closer to Camelot than to 20th-century Japan. But when Miyazaki’s couple reenact a classic romantic setup—the lady perched on a balcony, her suitor wooing her from below—there’s an ominous twist: they’re tossing a paper airplane back and forth. What Miyazaki is getting at is that sustaining this idealized kind of soul-to-soul communion demands an extreme act of faith in your own imaginative powers—a kind of liftoff from reality. And that this withdrawal from reality, born out of a drive for total imaginative freedom, can also result in the kind of moral self-exoneration that leads conscientious young people blissfully into war.
And that’s where the film ends: inside a dream that conflates the loss of a loved one with defeat in a war, while at the same time suggesting that, in dreams, nothing is ever really lost. In other words, Miyazaki stays devoutly committed to the idea that, given enough faith and force of will, an individual can reinvent the world without ceding an inch of his or her inner vision—for better or worse. The film returns, mantra-like, to a line from Paul Valéry: “Le vent se lève / Il faut tenter de vivre” (“The wind rises . . . One must try to live”), which is both fitting and incongruous. Fitting, because it mirrors the film’s image of the lone dreamer struggling to maintain his integrity in an unstable world; incongruous, because it suggests the necessity for compromise that the film refuses to make.
A few months after The Wind Rises had its Japanese premiere, Miyazaki announced his retirement. It’s hard to imagine a finer send-off than this delicate, rueful, and achingly sad film, in which the capacity to dream comes off both as saving grace and tragic flaw.