Irony runs rampant in the opening words of animator Hayao Miyazaki's final film, The Wind Rises. While the movie claims "The wind is rising! We must try to live!" it is proof that a world without Miyazaki will be difficult to bear.
The film is a fictionalized biography of Jiro Horikoshi, designer of Japan's warplanes during World War II. At a young age, Jiro (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is fascinated with flight and airplanes, but cannot fly because his vision is not good enough. In his dreams, Jiro is supported by Italian plane designer Giovanni Caproni (Stanley Tucci), who encourages Jiro to design planes instead of piloting them. As he grows older, Jiro struggles to continue designing airplanes because of his guilt about building war machines. With his wife (Emily Blunt) dying of tuberculosis, Jiro has to decide where his dreams really lie and whether his passion is worth pursuing.
The subject feels oddly out of place for a Studio Ghibli film; Miyazaki is an ardent pacifist and, barring a few movies that Miyazaki did not direct, Ghibli films have always been set in fictional worlds. Yet with The Wind Rises, it's clear that Miyazaki is a master of finding beauty not just in foreign worlds, but also in everyday life. Memorable are the scenes where Jiro is fascinated by the curve of a mackerel bone or fights against an umbrella animated by a gust of wind.
Studio Ghibli animates even the smallest details with perfect motion: Exhaust trails from planes swirl beautifully, and individual blades of grass flutter in the background behind each character. The viewer can sense the thrill of flight through the difference between the stagnant scenes on land and fluid motion of those in the sky. Most sound effects are actually human voices and give the movie a natural feel; a powerful scene depicting the 1932 Tokyo earthquake is particularly unsettling when one realizes the heavy rumbles are actually people whispering "earthquake" over and over. Despite the unusual choice of focus, this is a definitely a Miyazaki movie, through and through.
The Wind Rises never manages to fly above the director's traditional flaws, either. It suffers from improper tension and pacing that never finds the right speed for the moment. Some topics, such as espionage and the Holocaust, are touched upon but then dropped without playing a role. Like the majority of Miyazaki movies, the ending feels abrupt and almost unexpected. The American dubbing suffers from big-star syndrome; Gordon-Levitt is too old for Jiro and, at the worst possible times, simply sounds awkward.
The film's heart is less biopic on World War II and more about the curse of being a creator. What begins as a war movie transitions into a self-aware commentary on the way an artist's work is twisted and contorted by the people who use it.
When Jiro becomes an engineer, Caproni tells him, "Artists are only creative for 10 years . We engineers are no different. Live your 10 years to the full." Miyazaki has had more than five decades, and the world may still not be ready to see him go. His final flight is a masterful farewell, one that viewers can only hope will be the wind under the wings of a new generation of animators.