"She flies like a dream", says a test pilot, near the end of The Wind Rises, to aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi after the maiden flight for Japan's latest military fighter plane. There is something ambiguous about the fact that a machine designed for death can be a dream; but director Hayao Miyazaki's swan song is a book of dreams. And, as is said earlier in the film, if there is a choice of a world with or without pyramids, Jiro Horikoshi would prefer one with pyramids, even if all they are are simply elaborate tombs.
For Jiro, a fictionalized composite drawn from the real-life Mitsubishi aviation engineer of the 1930s and 40s Jiro Horikoshi and from a fictional short story by Tatsuo Hori, it's the pursuit of the dream that matters. And it's hard not to see in him a little bit of his own creator, the Japanese master animator who spent all his life pursuing his own dream and has pretty much all but bucked the trends of animated cinema in the past decades.
Like Jiro, Mr. Miyazaki is a dreamer whose uneasy relationship with the world around him has given him a unique, almost poetc insight into the transfiguration of emotion into animated images. Though there exists indeed computer-generated imagery in The Wind Rises - as in the previous films from Mr. Miyazaki - this is a stubbornly handcrafted work, one whose inspiration is as smooth-flowing and natural as the fish bone that inspires Jiro's designs in an era where steel rivets and gun-grey metal seemed to be de rigueur. Look at the superb earthquake scene early on in the plot, when Jiro is returning to university to Tokyo - its fluid, hand-drawn animation may almost seem burlesque, but that spontaneity is what it gives its simultaneously awesome and terrifying nature. It's what makes this all but realistic earthquake more impressive than any CGI perfection could muster.
At its best, animation is about weightlessness, about soaring free - and what better subject for animation than aviation, the ultimate human challenge to the pull of gravity? The Wind Rises is, then, an exercise in weightlessness, but also a tug-of-war between taking flight and staying put, between the dreams Jiro pursues and the chains that anchor him down to earth. He can only truly be himself at the drawing board - and, then, later, when he meets Naoko, the girl he helped save from the earthquake and who will much later reenter his life in a wonderfully poetic "meet cute" that highlights Mr. Miyazaki's delicate, elaborate touch with storytelling.
The director has never been one to limit himself to what people think animation should be, and one of the most stunning aspects of The Wind Rises is that the apparently disconnected parallel plotting of the film (Jiro's work, dreams and personal life run along separate tracks for most of the story) turn out to connect beautifully at its end. I was much reminded of Brief Encounter in the way Mr. Miyazaki winds Jiro and Naoko's stories together, just as so much in this extraordinary work seems to pull into its orbit elements from earlier films (Porco Rosso and Howl's Flying Castle come most to mind).
The visual references to German Expressionism and the constant quotes from Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain and the poetry of Paul Valéry also give the film a unique poignancy, borne out of the sense that Jiro's dreams take place in a placid world of elegance and beauty that is about to end dramatically as World War II looms into view. But, as the earthquake scene shows, in a country such as Japan, where nature takes precedence without asking permission, apocalypse is not a distant concept anyway.
It would probably not be hard to find in what the director announced publicly as his final feature film a lot of career resonances, and indeed fans of Mr. Miyazaki will find here much to chew on. This brings us back to the idea that Jiro is a thinly-veiled match for Mr. Miyazaki, both men of dreams whose yearnings and desires set them apart from their contemporaries, using tradition as a means to move things forward. The Wind Rises could be "Miyazaki redux" and there's nothing wrong with that, but it's also a gloriously layered throwback to an earlier era of melodrama, melding together Oriental and Western elements in a film of extraordinary elegance and almost unspeakable precision. Indeed, The Wind Rises flies like a dream.
Original Japanese voice cast: Hideaki Anno, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Miori Takimoto, Masahiko Nishimura, Mansai Nomura, Jun Kunimura, Mirai Shida, Shinobu Otake, Morio Kazama, Keiko Takeshita
Director and screenwriter Hayao Miyazaki; supervising animator Kitaro Kosaka; composer Joe Hisaishi; art director Yoji Takeshige; editor Takeshi Seyama; producer Toshio Suzuki; production companies Studio Ghibli, Nippon Television Network, Dentsu, Hakuhodo DY Media Partners, Walt Disney Japan, Mitsubishi Shoji, D-Rights, Toho Company and KDDI Corporation
Screened March 11th 2015, Lisbon