Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Runtime: 126 minutes
Shortly after the Venice premiere of The Wind Rises, legendary animation director Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement, to the dismay of fans across the world (including yours truly). For years, Miyazaki's animated creations have dazzled and thrilled. I still remember, at a young age, having my mind warped by the magic of Princess Mononoke. Yet given what Miyazaki's has churned out for his apparent swan song, perhaps it's for the best that he gives retirement a shot. Despite typically gorgeous animation, the master's farewell film lacks the inspired touch that drove all of his best work.
Unlike Miyazaki's most famous films, The Wind Rises has no magical creatures. The flights of fancy are contained to a series of dream sequences revolving around Jiro Horikoshi (Hideaki Anno), the designer of Japan's WW2 aircraft, and his desire for greatness. Miyazaki's passion for the story is evident, yet the underlying notion that most of the flight scenes are dreams hinders the film's ability to engage. All of Miyazaki's most outlandishly designed creatures feel alive because they're real in regards to the story. Here, the number of dreamed or imagined flights vastly outnumber the real ones, and it causes the film to stumble where it should soar.
There's also the matter of Jiro as a protagonist. For all the time he spends working and dreaming, he's such an introverted (and even passive) figure that he proves difficult to root for. The film's most compelling figure is actually Caproni, the Italian engineer who acts as Jiro's dream guide and inspiration. Caproni spends the entire movie leading, acting, and boasting. Jiro, meanwhile, mostly watches. It's a testament to the film's missteps how Jiro feels passive even when he's doing innovative work in the real world.
And rather than pick up as it goes along, The Wind Rises sticks to the same old pace as it languidly moves from incident to incident. The film's low point comes when Jiro vacations in a quaint resort and meets his eventual wife. It's the stuff of bland, boring romantic comedies, except that here it's directed, designed, and animated with a masterful flair for movement. With respect to the title, at least the use of wind throughout the film is well handled.
Yet the film's fatal flaw, and it's an odd one, comes in the form of the sound work. Or rather, the lack of sound work. Even when a massive, devastating earthquake strikes Toyko, one is left straining to hear (and thereby feel) more of the chaos. Despite the widespread destruction of such an incident, the limited nature of the sound gives the impression that only a few dozen buildings and/or people have been affected. The same approach is used with other scenes involving large crowds, and the effect is frustrating and distancing. It's almost like watching a silent film that has no added musical accompaniment; your ears are left begging for something more.
Only in one of the final flight scenes does The Wind Rises briefly come together. But, in a film that runs roughly two hours, the scene is hardly a fraction big enough to outweigh the negatives. With its thin characters and ambling plot, The Wind Rises feels both lazy and indulgent. One would think that a director like Miyazaki could make a film that's more style than substance work on some level. Instead, the result is more like one of Jiro's earliest test planes: it hints at greatness before spiraling out of control and disintegrating into scraps. But hey, at least it looks pretty.