The word I often use to describe Hayao Miyazaki's films is "gentle." In an American cinematic environment so dominated by sound and fury, Miyazaki refreshes by virtue of his ability to heighten and illuminate the small and the quiet. Unfortunately, that strength becomes a bit of a liability for The Wind Rises, which focuses on the life and craft of Jiro Horikoshi, the famed aeronautical engineer whose designs were instrumental in augmenting the air power of Japan on the eve of World War II. Whenever we're exploring Horikoshi's dreams, which Miyazaki depicts as a richly textured world where Horikoshi receives inspiration for his aircraft designs, the film is alive with wonder, light, and shadow. But one gets the sense, watching the sequences set in the real world, that Miyazaki's heart is still stuck in dreamland. This impression lends an unfortunate shrug-like quality to Horikoshi's reality. Because Miyazaki seems not to care much about Horikoshi's "real world," neither do we.
This is a problem. One longs to know how Horikoshi feels about his fiancee's illness and about the sight of his lovely designs being appropriated for mass slaughter and imperialistic expansion. But time and again, his emotions are elided: his dreams are just so enchanting. Miyazaki's film is beautiful, but the beauty has a theoretical quality to it. It's the difference between a perfectly drawn blueprint and the sleek, burnished metal of the completed airplane.
Miyazaki seems more at home in storybooks than in history. This is not a criticism—we need J.R.R. Tolkiens every bit as much as we need Wilfred Owens. Both writers were inspired by their experiences in the trenches of World War I, but they produced work in two very different modes. One can understand why Miyazaki wanted to tell this story, and the film soars when he is freed from the trappings of a fallen world. Sadly, the fallen world is where this story is obliged to spend much of its time. Miyazaki's design, once built, simply doesn't reach the heights he intended.