With 'Wind' rising, its animator breezes into retirement

05:00 AM, Nov 09, 2013

Animator/director Hayao Miyazaki at a news conference in Tokyo to announce his retirement. Jun Sato, WireImage/


Written By by Eric Kohn, Indiewire

Ever since Toy Story put Pixar Animation Studios on the map, the team behind beloved animated movies such as Ratatouille and The Incredibles has been acclaimed for its ability to tell stories that blatantly appeal to adult sensibilities: No Disney fairy tales or hyperbolic musical numbers dominate the best of Pixar’s output.

However, Pixar has never been the only game in town to achieve this refreshing contrast to animated movies skewed toward kids: Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki has been churning out thematically complex and imaginative works for nearly 35 years, predominantly through the acclaimed Studio Ghibli he co-founded.

Miyazaki’s best-known films include My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, for which he won an Academy Award. Experts on the history of animation tend to agree that Miyazaki’s career has been the most significant for the medium since the death of Walt Disney. But all good things must come to an end, and in the weeks leading up to this month’s U.S. release of Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, the 72-year-old animator has announced his retirement.

It’s certainly a good way to go out: The Wind Rises consolidates many of the most compelling elements of his work. While technically a biopic about Jiro Horikoshi, the engineer responsible for designing some of the key Japanese fighter planes used during World War II, the movie has many of the spectacular visual touchstones of Miyazaki’s other films: Ethereal images of majestic jets populate the young, plane-obsessed Jiro’s dreams; an earthquake that plays a key role in his emergence into adulthood takes on a memorably haunting quality that hints at some of the darker themes lurking beneath the surface.

At the same time, it’s also far subtler than much of Miyazaki’s oeuvre: Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke both include heavy fantasy components that turn them into otherworldly experiences; the majority of Miyazaki’s work includes at least a few non-human entities. Yet The Wind Rises is largely a straightforward portrait of Jiro’s career aspirations and engineering insights. After encapsulating his subject’s childhood ambition, Miyazaki follows him through his university studies and various jobs at airplane manufacturers while developing a romance with Naoko, a woman he meets during the aforementioned earthquake, who eventually becomes his bride.

Though Miyazaki occasionally shifts to visions that Jiro experiences, in which he engages in imaginary conversations with famed Italian plane engineer Caproni, The Wind Rises exists mostly in our own world; the plot (which has been largely fictionalized) centers on Jiro’s powerful compulsion to bring seemingly impossible ideas into reality, a theme that gets at the essence of his career — as well as Miyazaki’s own talent. In that regard, the movie retroactively explores the level of sophistication that has been driving the animator’s career for decades.

But there’s more going on with The Wind Rises than pure creative passion. Given that the planes Jiro designed were eventually used in the attack on Pearl Harbor, the shadow of war hangs ominously over its narrative. In its home country, despite doing well at the box office, The Wind Rises has been the source of great controversy: To pacifists, the celebration of Jiro’s talent is implicitly pro-war; meanwhile, right-wing critics have taken issue with the exact opposite, complaining that the full extent of Jiro’s impact on Japanese military history is left off-screen.

The very nature of that debate, however, attests to its nuanced approach. Miyazaki has crafted a rich text infused with ideas open to debate but unquestionably spectacular to witness, and, as a result, it is weighted with the paradoxes affixed to the legacy of Jiro’s achievements.

For audiences who expect simpler stories from animated films, The Wind Rises might be too smart for its own good. In a year when some of the most popular animated features involve more familiar ingredients — Despicable Me 2 and Monsters University are among the highest-grossing of the bunch — The Wind Rises utilizes a level of sophistication that puts it in a different category of artistry altogether.

Then again, that’s the essence of Miyazaki’s career in a nutshell. Just as Disney managed to push the limits of the animated form again and again, Miyazaki has worked within the constraints of expectations that audiences bring to the format and transcended them. With The Wind Rises, he pulls off that trick one last time.