In large part due to the work done by Walt Disney and his company all the way back in the 1930s, animation has almost always been seen as a medium almost exclusively for younger audiences.
This viewpoint has evolved in many ways, of course, and today there animated features that are just as entertaining for grown-ups as they are for children. But it remains incredibly rare to see animation that is more geared specifically towards mature movie-goers (especially without an established franchise audience to build on). It’s a shame given that there are undoubtedly adult-oriented stories out there that could do some amazing things given the absolute freedom presented in animation.
Case in point: The Wind Rises, the final film from master filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, tells a story that most young audiences probably won’t be able to connect to, but uses absolutely stunning art to tell an impressive story about both a crucial period in Japanese history and what true passion can accomplish.
Both scripted and directed by Miyazaki, the film begins in the years leading up to World War II and the ambitions of Jiro Horikoshi (voice of Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the young man whose love for aeronautical engineering helped bring his country into the modern age with unrivaled enthusiasm and outside thinking. Beginning during Jiro’s childhood, the story begins as the protagonist is inspired by the great Italian aeronautical designer Count Giovanni Battista Caproni to create beautiful airplanes. He studies hard to graduate with top grades and a degree from university, and begins working for one of the country’s top aeronautics firms. Though he’s haunted by the reality that his designs will ultimately be used as tools of war and constantly running into technological and political roadblocks, his unyielding desire always drives him towards accomplishing his dreams.
As we’ve come to expect from Studio Ghibli -- the company Miyazaki co-founded that previously brought us titles like Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle -- The Wind Rises is an absolutely beautiful piece of art that really makes one want to cry out for more mainstream 2D animated films. Jiro is an active dreamer, and throughout the story drifts into worlds of stunning fantasy, filled with spectacular impossible airships cutting through the clouds and physically manifesting the character’s love. Fitting with the title of the movie, nearly every scene is accented with swirling gusts of wind that give every frame just that much more mise en scene, and highlight both sequences of fun fantasy and epic destruction (seen both in planes crashing and the horrific effects of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923).
As a character of immense passion, Jiro is an incredibly easy protagonist to root for. His desire to make airplanes is infectious, and you want to see him achieving his goals. But the movie has some significant pacing and structural problems. Because the film covers so much of Jiro’s life, there are frequent leaps forward in time. These jumps are never announced with title cards, though, so the audience is left to just try and pick up time and place by picking up on offhand scraps of conversation. (The film doesn’t talk down to the audience, but it does make the storyline disorienting.) What’s more, the protagonist’s time trying to create perfect airplanes is motivating and exciting, but in the second act the story gets derailed by a romantic subplot that is full of passion, but not nearly as interesting as the central arc. These elements do add a certain extra depth to the movie, but it also slows it down considerably, which isn’t great when paired with a 126 minute runtime.
Miyazaki has left a mark on the world of animation and filmmaking that will never be forgotten, and in many ways The Wind Rises is a perfect note to end his career on. Like his protagonist, the director has spent his entire life working towards his creative passion and successfully accomplishing his goals in spectacular fashion.