"Kaze Tachinu" (The Wind Rises), directed by Hayao Miyazaki, is an animated and fictionalized biography of Jiro Horikoshi (played by Hideaki Anno), an airplane designer who created the famous Mitsubishi Zero fighter in the years preceding the second world war. He combines the story of Horikoshi, with elements drawn from a short novel by Japanese author Tatsuo Hori. The theme is fitting for Miyazaki, especially as it is supposed to be his final film. His fascination with flight, and the wonder and beauty of it, runs through his work.
The film is a poetic and elegiac portrayal of Horikoshi's life, in which Miyzaki uses a complex and beautiful visual language. The film takes as much place inside the mind of Jiro, as in the world around him, shifting seamlessly between his world of dreams and imagination and the real world
(Before I continue, I should warn the reader that I am going to discuss and analyze the plot of the film in some detail, including the ending).
Miyazaki portrays Horikoshi as an artist and airplanes as beautiful art. Miyazaki has a love of flying, that shows itself in practically all his films, but never more than here. The beauty of the airplanes of the past is fully on display in this film and Miyazaki fully imparts his love of them unto the audience. In Miyazaki's eyes, technology and engineering is an artform (1). At times, one even gets a science-fictionlike sense of wonder from the beautiful designs, all the more wonderful because they are real. Miyazaki, known to be the master of fantasy, here makes reality as wonderful as fantasy (2).
This is entirely appropriate, as airplanes (as technology in general), by going from an idea in the mind of the designer to concrete realtity, are dreams made real. (and of course, the airplane is realization of one of the oldest human dreams, that of flight). This breakdown between imagination and reality are fully present in the film itself, since its travels fluidly between Jiro's imagination and reality.
A world with pyramids
But dreams can also be nightmares and beauty corrupted. In the hands of the military, the beautiful airplanes become instruments of death and destruction. Jiro himself ends up designing fighter planes for the military. Of course, he realized that this would happen and, being a man of peace, struggles with the dilemma. In his imagination, he speaks to his hero, airplane designer Count Caproni, who himself ended up designing war planes. Caproni (or rather himself) tells him to go ahead despite this. He makes an analogy with the pyramids (which were built by slave labor) and says he would rather have a world with pyramids, than one without. The world is better off with the beauty of Jiro's creations, despite the fact that others are going to use them for evil.
But of course, this is no definite answer and in the end Jiro surveys the carnage caused by the war, sincerely wondering if his Zero fighter was worth it (3).
This is of course a very difficult subject matter, but Miyazaki handles it beautifully, condemning war and imperialism, but recognizing the beauty of the Zero fighter and the humanity of its designer. He wrestles maturely with the questions this means and doesn't give easy answers.
"Das gibt's nur einmal"
The film also tells the story of the love between Jiro and his wife Naoko. He meets her during the great earthquake of 1923, when he rescues her and her mother from its effects. They are afterwards separated for several years, before they meet again at a holiday resort. Their love blossoms and they become engaged to each other.
But sadly, Naoko suffers from tuberculosis and is eventually confined to a sanatorium (Thomas Mann's Der Zauberberg is naturally explicitly referenced.). But her love for Jiro is too strong and she leaves the sanatorium to live with and marry him, despite this shortening her life. She decides that living a short life with the one she loves, is better than a longer life without him. Miyazaki seems to argue that life without love is not worth living, no matter how long (4).
Myiazaki of course connects this theme to the questions raised by Jiro's work. Jiro "choosing a world with pyramids", by creating the Zero fighter, is in the end the same decision Naoko makes when she leaves the sanatorium.
But yet again, Miyazaki avoids easy answers. Naoko eventually returns to the sanatorium, but this time to die, in order to spare Jiro the pain of seeing her die. Just as she feared, burning brighter also means one burns out faster (5).
"The Wind rises"
The ending is sad and elegiac. Naoko dies and Jiro's beautiful plane becomes a tool of destruction in the second world war. In the ending scene, which takes place in Jiro's imagination, he surveys the carnage and questions his life. But there is also hope.
This hope is in the very title of the film, which comes from a poem by Paul Valery: ‘Le Cimetiere marin’ ("The graveyard by the sea") which also serves as the films motto: "The wind rises!... We must try to live!" The wind is a recurring motif throughout the film, that is associated with Naoko.
Finally the wind rises one last time and Naoko appears. She tells Jiro to keep on living, before she disappears. On that melancholic, but hopeful note, the film ends. As Valery tells us: despite all the suffering in the world, we must try to live.
(1)There is one scene in which he extends this viewpoint beyond aeroplanes to technology in general, when Jiro admires a radiator and compares it to his beloved planes. I remember this particularly because my house has very similar old-fashioned water-radiators and the scene has made me appreciate them more.
(2) Miyazaki does the same thing with the Japanese countryside, making it seem as fantastic and wonderful as the fantasy landscapes in some of his earlier films.
(3) Jiro says that none of the Zero fighters survived, which is a very beautiful and poetic idea, despite not being true, as there are a few surviving Zeros.
(4) It is no coincidence, that Jiro sings the period schlager "Das gibt nur einmal, das kommt nicht wieder", right before announcing his engagement to Naoko. The ethos of the song, that life is to be lived to the fullest because it is the only one we have, is also that of her life and marriage.
(5) It is also implied that Naoko sacrifices herself, not only for her love, but for Jiro's work. She acts as muse to Jiro, inspiring him, during his work on the Zero fighter, and she only leaves when it is finished, making her the fighters first victim.