Hayao Miyazaki’s final film begins with a dream sequence. A young Jiro Horikoshi, the film’s protagonist and Miyazaki stand-in, climbs his roof to find a child-sized plane waiting for him. When Jiro takes off, he doesn’t accelerate; instead, he floats, as if he were in a hot air balloon. Quickly, he’s soaring, flying at incredible speeds and rising higher and higher. His ecstasy is palatable, the pleasure of flight real. But there’s something above him. A cluster of sinister-looking dots moves from behind a cloud, and as Jiro’s vision comes into focus, a giant, black zeppelin is revealed, dangling hundreds of bombs that undulate like slugs and carry shadowy figures. The bombs are dropped, smashing Jiro’s plane into bits, and he plummets, somersaulting in dream free-fall amid the ruins of his mini-plane.
And then the dream’s over.
The oddest part of the sequence – and all of the dream sequences in The Wind Rises – is that there’s a defined beginning and end. Miyazaki’s previous films have been immersed in fully-realized dream worlds: his most iconic creations (Totoro and the flying Catbus from My Neighbor Totoro, the Kodama from Princess Mononoke, Jiji from Kiki’s Delivery Service, and the soot sprites from Spirited Away) exist in the same narrative universe as some of the most well developed and compelling female protagonists in film. Miyazaki has a unique way of tapping into the collective human imagination in ways that seem to evade his American contemporaries, but The Wind Rises limits itself to brief forays into the fantastic, for better and for worse.
For Miyazaki, this shift away from fantasy is a kind of outward zoom: a way of contextualizing his own relationship to his work, and an excuse to show himself side-by-side with his imaginative creations. The real Jiro Horikoshi was an aeronautical engineer famous for designing the Zero fighter planes the Japanese used to bomb Pearl Harbor, but Miyazaki’s Horikoshi is less concerned with the eventual use of his creations (at one point, he forgets to factor the plane’s weapons into his calculations) and more committed to making the plane of his dreams a reality. That isn’t to say that Horikoshi is oblivious to the world outside his fantasy—Japan’s technological backwardness is one of the factors driving his design pursuits, and the nation’s downward political and economic trajectory is omnipresent—he simply refuses to compromise his own individuality, retaining a critical position slightly removed from the government and its military goals.
If all of Miyazaki’s previous work has been defined by his ability to completely fabricate a coherent cinematic universe that can reject the limitations of gravity, space, and time, The Wind Rises is singular in its boundedness and debt to reality. This isn’t to say that he is completely beholden to the laws of physics; this is still an animated film, after all. Miyazaki can make an earthquake move across a cityscape like a wave with a noise halfway between a belch and a groan. He fills multiple scenes – and an imaginary airplane in one of Jiro’s dreams – with hundreds of people, consistently packing moving bodies into shots that would be logistically and technologically irrational to include in a live-action film. He strikes a balance between his usual explorations of movement and space and a narrative that deals with mature relationships and moral compromises. Jiro is never ignorant of the implications of his actions – both in his work and in his relationship with Naoko, his terminally-ill wife – and, like Miyazaki, he attempts to find a middle ground, a way for his creativity and dreams to coexist with his love for and responsibilities to others. The middle ground is never established, most likely because there can never really be a true middle ground when both Jiro’s personal and professional life veer so deeply into the melodramatic, but the pursuit is real, if unsatisfying. The Wind Rises focuses on the limitations of that imagination in the real world, the ways in which it can never be articulated in a meaningful way without some type of sacrifice or struggle. It isn’t Miyazaki’s best film, but it is easily his most realistic and self-doubting: a glimpse into the mind of a retiring master.
The 51st New York Film Festival runs from September 27 to October 13 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.