Jiro Horikoshi has planes on the mind. He dreams of joining them in the sky – but Jiro is nearsighted, tragically grounding him. Nevertheless, this doesn’t stop him forging a career in designing them, joining one of Japan’s leading aeronautical companies in 1927. But despite Jiro’s endless determination, his most defining moment is his rescuing of a younger girl and her maid from a train during the Great Kanto Earthquake four years earlier; his utterly selfless act is cemented by his swift departure from the scene, not even telling those he saved what his name is. This do-goody nature could easily have turned Jiro into a bland cipher, but his altruism through the picture indicates a soul in search of his own purpose; but in constantly helping others, and throwing himself into his work, he may exhaust the possibility of being happy himself. And when he later finds love, a frissure opens between his work and his heart – but he attempts to devote everything to both anyway. Jiro always seems to be wandering in a dream world, where anything is possible; perhaps he never grew up from that boy who just wanted to fly planes.
Aside from the main character’s tribulations, the real world swirls around him with all its relentless, frightening change. Jiro’s role as a Japanese manufacturer of planes during wartime means his creations are used by the Nazi effort; audiences may find a lot to be divisive about on this front, not so much that Jiro is aiding the Axis in some way, but the fact that he seems to have no opinion either way about it. Ultimately, Jiro simply wants to be able to make his beautiful dreams, and gives no thought to their not-so beautiful use. In themes like this, The Wind Rises slowly dawns as Ghibli’s most adult-oriented effort (it’s difficult to see children being swept along by it), and with a particular moroseness that may be mistaken as dullness. Instead, this promotes a peculiar brand of melancholy that contrasts, to increasingly heartbreaking effect, the sky-high (or naive) optimism of some of the characters. Is Miyazaki letting us know that no matter how bad life gets, there’s always something to hope for around the corner? Or that hope is nothing more than a dream?
Whether Miyazaki’s ninth symphony will be considered a masterpiece, like many of his others, will require time. From the man who brought us Totoro, Kiki, Mononoke and Chihiro, it’s difficult to place Jiro and his skyward struggle in that same colourful line-up, where oneiric eccentricity is a key trademark. But Miyazaki hasn’t abandoned his dreamlike landscapes for humdrum existences; rather, he’s showing us that dreaming is the very basis of everything good accomplished in life. For the fact is, plane super-designer Caproni never met Jiro, and never gave him the ‘planes are beautiful dreams’ advice that spurred him to greatness at the start of the picture. For Jiro experienced this encounter in a dream, as a young child, the result of a fertive imagination; his accomplishments are of his own making. He’s an engineer, just like Miyazaki, and he wants his dreams to fly. Now that’s a legacy.