‘The Wind Rises’ is gorgeous, but too naive for knowledgable audiences

Animation stuns, but film fails to capture WWII’s history

McClatchyMarch 28, 2014 

A young Jiro (voice of Joseph Gordon-Levitt) runs alongside one of Italian designer Giovanni Caproni’s (voice of Stanley Tucci) planes in “The Wind Rises.”


“The Wind Rises” was a dream project for the great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, and this gorgeous film makes a fine capstone for his career.

But even though it has fanciful dream sequences and some of the most lovely hand-drawn imagery of the Emperor of Anime’s career, the subject matter and his treatment of it are a puzzlement. It’s basically a biopic about Jiro Horikoshi, who designed planes for the Japanese military before and during World War II.

This Jiro dreams of Zeroes.

Miyazaki — famed for “Ponyo” and “My Neighbor Totoro” and a whole genre of animation that spun out of his Studio Ghibli — chose to tell a story and tell it from such a distinct point of view that had he shot it with live actors, “Wind Rises” would have had no appeal outside of Japan.

We meet young Jiro in a dream, a student who takes flights of fancy in his sleep, visiting his favorite Italian airplane designer, Giovanni Caproni (voiced by Stanley Tucci).

“Airplanes are not for making war,” Caproni purrs to the kid he calls “Japanese Boy.” “Airplanes are beautiful dreams.”

Jiro (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) pursues his own dream, to become an engineer and design such aircraft. He lives through the great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, stunningly recreated here, and the militarism that came to dominate Japan in the days and years after it. The heroic Jiro rescues an injured nanny and the little girl she cares for, with long-term romantic consequences.

And with his pal Honjo (John Krasinski), he starts designing planes for an unidentified company (Mitsubishi). Since the military is doing all the buying, that means they’re designing fighter planes and bombers.

Thus begins Miyazaki’s strained efforts to view World War II in that arm’s-length way official Japan has long treated it.

“We’re not arms merchants,” the engineers rationalize. “We just want to build good aircraft.” That little matter of the war? That just sort of happened.

Jiro and Honjo travel to Germany to study the Junkers way of building warplanes — but we never see a swastika or Teutonic Cross. A German tourist (voiced by the great German director Werner Herzog) warns Jiro of the doomed path both Germany and Japan are taking.

Miyazaki skips past almost all of the unpleasantness of WWII. For instance, he focuses on flawed bombers easily shot down rather than the innocent Chinese civilians they were bombing.

The planes depicted here are lovely things, from the impractical dream craft of Caproni to the various successes and failures of Mitsubishi. Their deadly use? Let’s not think about that. It’s rather like celebrating the life of the fellow who invented the AK-47 without mentioning the butcher’s bill.

As any fan of the History channel and its clones can verify, there’s nothing wrong with celebrating a triumph of engineering or a thing of beauty like the Zero. But not addressing the way it was used and the war the country started so that it could use it just reminds us that Japan still dreams of denial, as far as World War II is concerned.


* * * *

Cast: Voices of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, Martin Short, Werner Herzog, John Krasinski, Stanley Tucci

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Running time: 2:05

Rated: PG-13; some disturbing images and smoking

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