"Le vent se lève! . . . Il faut tenter de vivre!" ("The wind is rising! . . . We must try to live!")
This quote from Paul Valéry's poem "Le Cimetière marin" opens and is repeated throughout Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises, a gorgeous and existentially contemplative film recently nominated for the best animated film Oscar (it lost to Frozen).
Miyazaki—a legendary Japanese filmmaker/animator (Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle)—is in the twilight of his career, and The Wind Rises is an appropriately epic, stately, and somber capstone to his six decades of acclaimed work. Its pace is more Ozu than Lego Movie, and its subject matter (building Japanese war planes in the years leading up to World War II) is hardly typical of the animated genre, but The Wind Rises is a masterful film. It deserves a wide audience.
The anime film is a fictionalized biography of aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi, who helped design and develop the planes that would be used by Japan in World War II. We see Jiro as a boy who dreams of flying planes but, due to poor eyesight, settles on the dream of building planes. He goes to college for it and quickly becomes the engineering prodigy of his country's developing aviation industry.
Jiro (voiced in the English-dubbed version by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) may be a nerdy engineer, but Miyazaki portrays him as an artist. His canvas is the sky and his paintbrush is the slide rule. The film's tension comes from an artist trying to do what he loves within the constraints of industry and practical life—in this case, a growing military industrial complex forking over huge amounts of money for planes designed to be agile killing machines. Jiro would rather his planes be elegant and graceful, without guns or bomb-dropping mechanisms.
But as it is, he is alive and in the prime of his engineering life at precisely the moment when the world is readying itself for war. As one character notes, any artist—including a plane engineer—has about ten years during which he or she is at the top of their craft, making their best work.
The winds of Jiro's life blew him into this place and time and for this task: to make the most well-designed war planes possible.
Miyazaki, an outspoken pacifist, doesn't critique Jiro for his role in perfecting the machinery of death in advance of World War II. Rather, he laments the way that such talent is twisted and such artistry leveraged for the ugly machinations of nations at war.
Set against the ominous backdrop of modernity's march to replace the pastoral with the industrial (an image of oxen carting war planes to a grassy runway epitomizes this), The Wind Rises is above all an elegy for the impermanence of beauty, art, love, and ultimately life itself.
The animation itself reflects this: painterly, almost Monet-esque landscapes populate the film, as well as whimsical visions of cloud, flight, and fancy. Yet this is juxtaposed with imagery of fire, destruction (the 1923 Kantō earthquake and fire) and war. There's skepticism about modernity and a romantic fondness for nature and the pastoral here, in a manner not unlike Terrence Malick or Werner Herzog (who lends his distinct voice to a German character in the film).