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The Wind Rises remixes history to make a deeper, more personal point

HBO Max has plenty of Oscar-nominated biopics, but none like The Wind Rises

Chris Plante co-founded Polygon in 2012 and is now editor-in-chief. He co-hosts The Besties, is a board member of the Frida Cinema, and created NYU’s first games journalism course.

May 25-30 is Studio Ghibli Week at Polygon. To celebrate the arrival of the Japanese animation house’s library on digital and streaming services, we’re surveying the studio’s history, impact, and biggest themes. Follow along via our Ghibli Week page.

By 2013, Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro director Hayao Miyazaki had built an identity around magic and whimsy. His films typically featured ghosts and witches, dragons and royalty. It wasn’t unusual for audiences to arrive at his films and see an anthropomorphic pig piloting an airplane, or children riding a Cat Bus. His family-friendly catalogue never fit neatly into a single genre, but his films shared a dreamy unpredictability.

So, when the elder statesman of animation announced not only that he was planning to retire, but that his final film would be a biopic, fans were understandably perplexed.

A biopic? Arguably the most formulaic, rigid, lifeless genre this side of slasher films? How could a career so creative, so combustible, so distinct, have such an anodyne coda? A biopic!

With seven years of hindsight, Miyazaki fans know the auteur didn’t produce anything like a standard biopic. Instead, he crafted arguably his grandest and most personal film. But a word of warning for newcomers watching The Wind Rises for the first time on Netflix outside America, or HBO Max in the States: the film demands attention.

Or to put it another way, if you decide to stream the movie while picking at your phone or baking some bread, you’ll mistake it for what’s on the tin: Just another biopic. But if you invest yourself (Noise-canceling headphones! Leave the phone in another room!) you’ll discover a film just as thrilling and unexpected as anything else in Miyazaki’s catalogue.

The life that never happened

The Wind Rises chronicles the life of Japanese aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi, a Great Man of Historical Import. Horikoshi was the chief engineer of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter plane, which the Japanese military would use during World War II, including in the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The story begins with Horikoshi’s childhood dream of creating the perfect airplane, and follows the incremental steps he takes to achieve that reality, in the face of bureaucratic, personal, and moral barriers. In true biopic fashion, the plot pairs Horikoshi’s artistic journey with a grand romance. He meets a young woman and they fall in love, but she’s stricken by a terminal illness. His professional success arrives alongside profound personal loss.

So far, so formulaic. Except that this tragedy never happened to Horikoshi.

That’s the twist, and it’s easy to miss. The Wind Rises isn’t merely one adaptation, it’s many. In the middle of the film, Miyazaki takes an extended break from Horikoshi’s “true” story, sending his protagonist to a rural resort to rethink his airplane designs. In the hotel, Horikoshi meets a mix of international guests, and they discuss the morality and ethics of his work within this period of turmoil. He also reunites with Naoko Satomi, a young woman recovering from tuberculosis.

The entirety of the resort sequence is a fictional cocktail combining three sources: There’s The Wind Has Risen, a short romantic fiction by the Japanese writer Hori Tatsuo; the French poet Paul Valery’s best known work, “Le Cimetière Marin”; and The Magic Mountain, a grim bildungsroman from German author Thomas Mann.

What Miyazaki borrows from each piece is obvious, even if you only know a summary of the works.

The Magic Mountain follows a shipbuilder named Castorp who visits his cousin at a sanatorium in Davos, and himself becomes ill with tuberculosis. In the sanatorium, he converses with a variety of characters with different philosophies and backgrounds, from a Dutch Dionysian to a Jesuit Marxist. The Wind Has Risen tells the tragic tale of a man (named “I”) and his fiancée, who’s overtaken by a terminal illness in a rural tuberculosis sanatorium. Tatsuo’s book was based on the author’s own loss, and further inspired by Valery’s poem. That poem provides the quote that opens Miyazaki’s film, and inspired the title of the film and Tatsuo’s book.

Even though these influences were written in three countries over two decades, they share similar elements and themes: illness, hope, the beauty of ideas while living in a time and space of immense tragedy and unpredictability, and the question of how we continue after experiencing such exceptional losses.

But why would Miyazaki stop the film for this lengthy diversion, mining a collection of works that have nothing to do with Horikoshi or even World War 2? Why let the diversion gradually become as important as Miyazaki’s actual subject in the film’s back half? Because the fictional story gets at ideas bigger than the historical truth.

The trouble with the biopic genre is that, for all its familiarity, entries are rarely universal. Most of us aren’t tortured artists. We won’t create things that will be remembered for decades, nor will we follow the biopic protagonist trajectory, overcoming our personal demons and personal sacrifices to produce some spectacular masterpiece.

Miyazaki’s film not only recognizes this limitation, it questions the validity of the Great Artist story as a whole. When Horikoshi leaves the resort, he stands at a crossroads. There’s the path of “greatness,” sacrificing his personal life for his achievements. And there’s the path of love, dedicating his time to Satomi and other personal relationships.

Effectively, the Horikoshi in the film is given the choice between the real Horikoshi’s life within the war, and an alternate, theoretical life outside of it, one more anonymous, but less fraught.

After choosing to focus on designing his plane, Horikoshi learns one of his acquaintances from the hotel, a German expat, has likely been captured by Japan’s secret police. Satomi’s illness worsens, forcing her to retreat to a sanatorium in the mountains, where she ultimately dies. And the plane he designed is ultimately used in a war with which he fundamentally disagrees. He loses friends and family, only for his art to be weaponized.

The film ends with Horikoshi achieving his dream, but because of his choice, that success came at profound cost. And for what? The film claims not a single Zero plane returned from combat, not because of the Zero’s design, but because they were leveraged in a war Japan would not win.

Why did a pacifist make a film about warplanes?

In 2013, Miyazaki making a film about Horikoshi seemed like an odd match not just because of the genre, but because of Miyazaki’s own beliefs.

He remains an outspoken pacifist. Ahead of The Wind Rises’ release, the director wrote a critique of Japan’s Prime Minister’s ambitions to change the nation’s constitution, making way for a revived military. Some of the nation’s conservative voices dubbed Miyazaki a traitor. Other fans questioned why a pacifist would create a film about the designer of a plane that was constructed in forced labor camps, then used in war to take thousands of lives.

The film itself is fixated on this conundrum, and the moral grey areas in which artists and creators often must navigate to survive. Miyazaki’s father ran Miyazaki Airplane, a company that created parts for Horikoshi’s Zero planes.

Like Miyazaki, the real Horikoshi criticized his nation’s part in war, believing the country’s leaders had doomed their people with their role in World War II. In his diary, Horikoshi wrote, “Japan is being destroyed. I cannot do [anything] other but to blame the military hierarchy and the blind politicians in power for dragging Japan into this hellish cauldron of defeat.”

But this internal struggle doesn’t lend itself to the sweeping, romantic visuals of a Miyazaki film. That’s the true value of Miyazaki including this parallel fictional story. It puts human faces on a set of big, abstract, messy ethical and personal dilemmas.

Horikoshi wants nothing more than to create his art, but it will literally cost him what he loves most. And Miyazaki chooses to illustrate that choice by bringing in the perspective of other artists, in the same way he adapted Diana Wynne Jones’ novel Howl’s Moving Castle by radically changing the story. Where most biopics try to maintain the illusion of “truth,” Miyazaki treats the genre and the “facts” as a canvas, a base layer on which he collages a variety of additional inspirations, including pieces of history, fiction, poetry and autobiography.

In interviews, Miyazaki said one particular quote from Horikoshi inspired the adaptation of the engineer’s life: “All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful.” It gets at a singular focus that Miyazaki shares, about rules, expectations, and form. Everything people expect from creators and their works can be pushed aside in pursuit of the beautiful. Miyazaki unquestionably makes beautiful films.

But given what he’s pushed aside in his own life, including a relationship with his own son, he clearly relates to the questions Horikoshi asks in this movie, and the answers he finds for himself. When the credits roll at the end of The Wind Rises, I always wonder: When Miyazaki looks back on his career, does he feel like he always chose the right path when prioritizing his art above everything else?