Miyazaki's final film epitomizes career-long aesthetic

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It was a quote from engineer Jiro Horikoshi that inspired Oscar-winning animator and head of Studio Ghibli Hayao Miyazaki to tell the aeronautical engineer’s story in his final directorial achievement, “The Wind Rises.”

“All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful,” Horikoshi, the designer responsible for fighter planes used by the Japanese in World War II, said.

Though Miyazaki is best known for fantasy films such as “Spirited Away” (2001), “Howl’s Moving Castle” (2004) and “My Neighbor Totoro” (1988), he has added a number of works of historical fiction to his repertoire in recent years with “From Up On Poppy Hill” (2011) and “The Wind Rises.” These films depict the distinctly Japanese struggle to modernize in the pre- and post-World War II era. Miyazaki’s own discomfort with modernization and neglect of the natural world are prevalent themes throughout his entire body of work, but these sentiments are especially apparent in his most recent film.

Miyazaki portrays the engineer Horikoshi as an artist obsessed with creating the ultimate plane, which is depicted throughout the film as a white, bird-like form, unencumbered by guns or armor. The young designer struggles with the harsh reality that upon completion, his designs will be used to craft agents of destruction that will be responsible for the deaths of thousands of his own countrymen.

Horikoshi’s internal conflict is portrayed in the painterly, poetic style of Studio Ghibli, as sleep carries the protagonist into a surreal dream state throughout the film. In these sequences, he conducts a dialogue with an idealized version of a forgotten idol in the field of aeronautical engineering. The bright color, bustling, vibrant wildlife and exaggerated, peaceful forms of the planes in these scenes provide Horikoshi and the viewer alike with a respite from the harsh reality of looming war and economic depression in Japan.

Though Horikoshi’s creations would bring about thousands of deaths in the coming war, Miyazaki stays true to Ghibli aesthetic and brightens the film’s tragic undertones with scenes of childlike innocence and optimism. These moments are provided by the protagonist’s younger sister and ailing bride-to-be, as they reinforce the feminist sentiments of Miyazaki films, while showing the viewer that positivity is even possible in the face of death and illnesseven .

Even the characters most deeply involved in the wartime politics of the film, who might be considered evil or unjust in their efforts to start another world war, are morally ambiguous. Horikoshi’s hard-nosed employer best exemplifies this role, as he works not only for the pride of the Japanese military but also empathizes with the passion of his employees. He exhibits reserved admiration for Horikoshi’s creativity and dedication to his craft, and provides stalwart emotional support in Horikoshi’s hour of need.

Ultimately, “The Wind Rises” is the culmination of a number of themes developed consistently throughout Miyazaki’s career. The animator’s appreciation for simplicity and tradition are realized through vivid depictions of the landscape that contrast immensely with the industrial constructs of pre-wartime Japan. Miyazaki’s films have consistently used the sky and bodies of water as symbols of detachment from materialistic, human motives.

In “The Wind Rises,” the secular realm takes to the skies in the form of fighter planes, corrupting the celestial symbol of the sky held in such esteem by Miyazaki. However, as is always the case with Ghibli films, the viewer is able to look at a tragic situation in a positive light thanks to the shared passion, creativity and support for one another exhibited by the film’s characters.