Hayao Miyazaki's films have given us flying pigs, soot sprites, forest spirits, cat buses, fire demons, and humanoid goldfish. They've conceived stunning liminal worlds that flicker madly between child and adulthood, legend and reality, nature and technology, forming thresholds in which these opposing sides battle to uneasy resolutions. Yet it's also entirely appropriate that the filmmaker's ostensible swan song, The Wind Rises, exists fully in our own world, with only the barest concessions to fantasy, subsuming those same conflicts within a masterfully mature work of bittersweet realism.
This verisimilitude mutes Miyazaki's usual madcap originality, but while the film is quieter than his earlier work, it's no less imaginative, every cell of the sharp, clean animation suffused with immense detail and feeling. It finds room to stretch in several formative dream sequences, but for the most part threads its ideas through a precisely realized early-20th-century Japan, reminiscent of the bucolic landscapes of his son Goro Miyazaki's recent From Up on Poppy Hill. The story of engineer Jirô Horikoshi (Hideaki Anno) as he grows from a flight-obsessed child to the designer of the dreaded Zero aircraft, the film hopscotches across a series of defining incidents in his life, charting the development of a man who, like Miyazaki (and perhaps his own father, who owned an airplane factory), dreams only of creating something beautiful.
The catch is that, in spite of Jirô's insistence on clean design and aerodynamic simplicity, planes in 1930s Japan function as expensive toys for a government increasingly intent on empire-building. So his simple creations get weighed down with spurious guns, repurposed into airborne killing machines. It's a transition that plays like a fulfillment of an early dream sequence, which jolts from the breathless wonder of flight to an outright nightmare, besieged by a sky black with phantom bomber pilots. A similar sense of loss pervades the entire film, as moments of idyllic contentment are repeatedly undercut by intimations of world-rending horror. The depiction of the 1923 earthquake that ravaged Tokyo is especially unsettling, its earth-rippling visuals offering disturbing portents of the atom bombs that would obliterate entire cities two decades later.
Maybe most important is the fact that The Wind Rises never denies its core ethical conundrum, that the striving, idealistic producer of such wondrous creations is also a pawn in service of a megalomaniacal regime, that his tools will wreak annihilation and cause the same to be returned upon his own friends and family. Instead it incorporates those contradictions into a mournful, even fatalistic, worldview. Sharp hints of longing have always added depth to the director's fantastical reveries, but here that nostalgia is for a world that actually existed beyond childhood daydreams, with interbellum Japan presented as both a poverty-choked backwater and an Edenic pastoral wonderland.
The result is a specific type of sadness, the ache that often grows from watching Weimar movies or late Japanese silents, in expectation of the tide of chaos that will soon tear these artificial worlds away from us forever. That feeling of loss is always present, particularly embodied by Jirô's wife, Naoko (Miori Takimoto), her lust for life hampered by a lingering case of tuberculosis. Miyazaki's predominant fixation remains the sad fact that a thing's pureness will not save it from rot and death, and while this fact has always been pushed aside by the salve of nature's cyclicality, the sting of impermanence is sharper here, with a concentrated depiction of the devious seeds of ruin that lie in all exquisite things.
The natural world is, of course, still doted upon, presented with as much loving care as you'd expect from a Ghibli production, with a particularly intense focus on movement: the shifting of pebbles after a tremor, or the delicate shimmer of grass blades in the wind. Nature here is something that's always in motion, its dualistic character representing the capacity for both total peace and annihilating power, more than evenly matched by man's twin faculties for creation and devastation. Miyazaki's films have always had a strong environmentalist bent, but here there's a deeper political statement, a resigned distress at the crushing weight of political systems, their hegemony over the helpless masses who can only cower as the storms of history rage about them.
These ideas have always been present in some form in Miyazaki's work, just as veins of realism have always run through even his most dreamlike fantasies, but they've never been brought into such sharp focus, and never presented with such adult fierceness. The Wind Rises thus establishes itself as a bold, startling endpoint to a career otherwise defined by gentle contemplation, a film shot through with a sense of resignation that, despite its intensity, does nothing to shake the pacifist humanist at its root. This is a movie which, despite a morbid focus on war and death, contains no villains and no bloodshed, and which seems less fixated on life's pitfalls than the occasions for triumph these provide. Inspired by the Paul Valéry quote that provides the film's title, the characters here press on even as the wind rises, their resolve only stiffened by resistance. And even if Miyazaki's career is complete, a work like this serves to remind us of the shining beacons he's left behind him, the testaments to pursuing beauty in the face of so much ugliness, themselves lasting reminders of the quiet rewards of determination.