For more than 30 years, Hayao Miyazaki, co-founder of Studio Ghibli, has concocted fantastic tales that could only be realized through animation, featuring some of the most delightfully strange creatures in cinema history. No one who’s seen My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service,or Spirited Away is likely to forget the outré imagery that defines those films, even if the details of their somewhat random stories fade away. Sadly, Miyazaki recently announced his retirement, which means that The Wind Rises will be his swan song. It’s an odd note to go out on—the only film he’s directed that tells a real-life story, replacing the flying pig of Porco Rosso with Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of Japan’s famed Zero aircraft. With a few fanciful exceptions (mostly dream sequences), this could have been a live-action biopic, albeit an expensive one.
As a child, Horikoshi (Hideaki Anno) dreamed of flying, but his poor eyesight made becoming a pilot impossible. Instead, with the encouragement of a dream mentor—Italian aeronautics whiz Giovanni Caproni (Nomura Mansai)—he chose to study aircraft design, eventually working his way up to the top of his field. Along the way, however, there were numerous setbacks and disappointments, with Horikoshi often watching helplessly from the ground as one of his creations plummeted from the sky. Furthermore, even his ultimate success would haunt him, as his Mitsubishi A6M Zero was responsible for countless deaths during World War II, including those at Pearl Harbor. (The film ducks this slightly by concluding its main story with the realization of the Zero’s predecessor, the A5M.)
While certain aspects of the narrative—notably the devastating 1923 Kanto earthquake and its resulting firestorms—would have been prohibitively costly to enact in live action, only the scenes in which Caproni appears in Horikoshi’s dreams (or vice versa, as Caproni insists) take full advantage of Miyazaki’s gifts. These sequences depict the two men in conversation thousands of feet in the air, casually striding the wings of planes not yet invented. And while the movie sticks doggedly to the facts of Horikoshi’s career, it also expends an inordinate amount of time on his romantic relationship with a young woman named Naoko (Miori Takimoto), which has been invented from whole cloth; this material amounts to little more than a banal rehash of Love Story, with its heroine slowly wasting away while remaining stoically beautiful. Still, while The Wind Rises isn’t top-shelf Miyazaki, it features more than enough gorgeous imagery to make his loss feel acute. Studio Ghibli will surely continue without him, but it’ll never be the same.