Review: Studio Ghibli’s The Wind Rises

Say the words “Studio Ghibli” to any lover of anime and you’re bound to get a positive response back. The studio, led by renowned artist and director Hayao Miyazaki, has been responsible for some of the most beloved and well-known anime films of all time. Howl’s Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke and the rest of the studio’s roster are practically required viewing for anime aficionados.

As a result, anticipation has been high for The Wind Rises, a historical fantasy based on the true story of Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of the legendary Zero fighter that formed the core of Japan’s air force during World War II. Further heightening expectations is the announcement that this is to be Miyazaki’s final production before retirement. It should come as no surprise that the movie is already a smash hit in Japan.

The North American release date isn’t until February, but I had the chance to catch a screening at TIFF and I jumped at it. I wasn’t the only one – the massive Ryerson screening theatre didn’t have an empty seat in the place. Anticipation was clearly high. So did it live up to the hype?

From a purely cinemagraphic perspective, the film is a masterpiece. The art is inspirational and in full measure with Studio Ghibli’s past works. The Great Kanto Earthquake may have been a disaster for the characters in the film, but it was a highlight for the audience, with an incredible sequence of art drawing the entire crowd into the chaos surrounding the event. Regular dream sequences and thoughtful pauses gave Miyazaki plenty of opportunity to inject his trademark whimsy into the style. Anyone watching this would know it was a Studio Ghibli work.

The story is mature and intelligent, even traditional, as it follows Jiro through his youth and schooling, into his career as an airplane designer (inspired by his ongoing dreams of the legendary Italian designer, Caproni). There is love, personal growth, tribulation and loss; the film even touches on the sensitive topic of the devastation wrought by World War II.

It would have been nearly impossible for a historical piece to measure up to the vividly fantastic stories for which Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli are known, which may be why it seems that they didn’t even try. The rather meandering story contained few surprises throughout, even though I lacked familiarity with Jiro’s historical life. There were heartwarming moments, but I found that with a few very notable exceptions, the characters and plotline were simply not as memorable as I’d hoped.

If you’re a Studio Ghibli fan, you’ll enjoy the movie for the visual spectacle it presents and the distinctly anime-style interactions that occur between some of the characters, and there’s no doubt you should see this final offering from Hayao Miyazaki. If you don’t find visual art compelling, however, this film unfortunately doesn’t have a lot extra to offer you. To use a music analogy, this film is to Studio Ghibli as Random Access Memories is to Daft Punk – a very well executed example of the medium, but not at all what you were expecting or what the artist is known for and, ultimately, a bit of a letdown because of it.

Words: Tim Ellis