How much responsibility does a filmmaker working from non-fictional material have to accurately represent his subject? It’s a complicated question, and one which muddles the The Wind Rises, an animated biopic that writer-director Hayao Miyazaki re-released with an English cast of voices that replace those in the original Japanese version. The film follows the life of Japanese military airplane designer Jiro Horikoshi (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), whose planes were incredibly effective killing machines and an asset to the Japanese military efforts during the Second World War, assisting with the slaughter of soldiers around the world. But The Wind Rises is not about the destruction that Horikoshi’s efforts wrought; rather, Miyazaki uses the film to emphasize the engineer’s identity as a dreamer, a lover, and an artist.
Airplanes fascinate young Jiro (voiced by Zach Callison), and he hopes to one day become a pilot. He looks up to the Italian aeronautical designer Giovanni Caproßni (voiced by Stanley Tucci), who inspires him to turn his aspirations into his life’s work. Though Jiro is discouraged when he realizes his poor eyesight prevents him from ever becoming a pilot, he revives his joie de vivre by learning that he can still design airplanes, even if he can’t fly them.
Jiro’s ambition leads him to study at a university. As he takes a train there, he meets a young girl named Nahoko (voiced by Emily Blunt), who catches his hat as it flies through the air. Jiro quickly repays her kindness when an earthquake hits and her caretaker Kinu (voiced by Mae Whitman) is unable to evacuate due to her broken leg. Jiro creates a makeshift splint for her and fetches water for both girls. Although, he leaves them abruptly and continues his trip to the university, Miyazaki leaves little room for doubt that Jiro and Nahoko will be reunited somewhere along the designer’s journey.
The scene on the train indicates one of the film’s major flaws: Miyazaki’s awkward attempt to merge straightforward realism with fantastical elements that feel lifted from the bizarre universes of his earlier films. As Nahoko attempts to catch the hat, it flies just out of her reach for a while before conveniently hanging in the air right in the range of her grasp. Touches of magical realism like these—which permeate The Wind Rises—are cute and add a touch of whimsicality to the mostly somber tone which Miyazaki strikes throughout the film, but they undermine our ability to take the narrative seriously. It’s hard to treat the film as a sober depiction of Jiro’s life when these elements continuously reappear to remind us that it takes place in a world fundamentally different from our own.
Miyazaki further undermines the gravity of the story through the simplistic depictions of his characters and the banal platitudes with which they speak. The short temper and rash judgements of Jiro’s boss Kurokawa (voiced by Martin Short) make for brief moments of comic relief, but they fail to lay the foundation for a substantive or believable character. Likewise, the German Castorp (voiced by Werner Herzog) comes off as little more than a bland manifestation of the “wise old man” archetype frequently found in Hollywood films. While the generic advice he provides Jiro helps to solidify his status as a father figure to the confused youngster, it also makes him seem more like a fortune cookie than a fully-realized human being.
This all would be less of a problem if Miyazaki wasn’t depicting real events, but he’s dealing with someone whose actions had an undeniably violent impact on the course of history. The portrayal of someone who created formidably destructive machinery deserves more gravitas than Miyazaki’s fanciful touches and paper-thin characters allow for. His focus on Jiro’s genius and artistry rather than the death it caused provides too narrow of a historical view to be taken seriously. I can’t help but wonder how audiences would have reacted if a filmmaker had used this approach to tell the story of the makers of Zyklon B or the atomic bomb. I don’t imagine viewers would have too much patience for such a film, and The Wind Rises is no more deserving of their attentions.