The most telling scene in The Wind Rises is, for me, one of its dream sequences. Our protagonist, Jiro Horikoshi, has been visiting German airbases on behalf of Japan and the company he designs aircraft for, Mitsubishi. The outbreak of WWII is still many years away, but its inevitability looms like a shadow over Germany, and over Jiro himself. The signs are all there, especially for audiences of the 21st century, who should know all too well what terrible violence society is about to unleash upon itself. Citizens pursue a frightened man through the streets like rabid dogs. The German military vigilantly guards the secrets of their newfound aviation techniques from Jiro and his companion's curious eyes. There are murmurs that this new Nazi party might really be pushing their nation's will upon Europe for a second time in as many decades.
Jiro doesn't seem to care about any of this, or if he does, his concern is dwarfed by the all-consuming passion that is so clearly displayed in the dream he has later that night, which comes after he and his longtime companion Kiro have been wracking their brains over how Japan might ever compete with the armies of their more developed rival states. As always, Giovanni Caproni, the legendary Italian engineer who inspired Jiro's own dream to “make beautiful planes”, visits Jiro, guiding him along a dreamscape full of the kinds of magical flights of fancy that Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli are known for, visions of incredible machines manned by noble pilots and filled with overjoyed passengers. Watching this fantasy unfold, it is easy to see the kinship that Miyazaki so clearly feels with his heavily fictionalized version of the man whose designs led to the creation of Japan's famous Zero bomber, and all of its descendants.
Caproni has a question, though: “Would you prefer a world with the pyramids, or without them?” The point the Italian (and therefore, Jiro's own subconscious) is trying to make is an obvious one, a weighing of how many lives are worth expending on any one nation's efforts to carve its legacy into the pages of history. Likewise, for a master craftsman like Jiro, is it worth relentlessly pursuing such a noble dream as designing magnificent airplanes when that work is specifically being used as a means to produce deadly tools of destruction and slaughter? Jiro says that all he wants to do is make something beautiful. We know that it cannot be so simple, and Miyazaki does, too.
The somewhat controversial choice to cast Hideaki Anno as Jiro in the Japanese dub makes perfect sense to me in this light. The man may give somewhat stiff line readings that clash noticeably with the professional voice actors who supply the other key voices in the movie, but Miyazaki was obviously looking for someone who doesn't sound like a typical Ghibli hero, or even a typical animated character. Jiro is not especially charismatic, nor does he tend to express himself with passion or aggression. As the creator of Evangelion, Anno may be infamous as the boundary-pushing auteur who channeled his rage, sadness, and loneliness into one of the greatest anime series ever made, but I think The Wind Rises makes perfect use of his amateur voice acting ability as Jiro, whose entire identity is shaped by his work. Whatever he fails to communicate to his loved ones and colleagues as a man is captured in the machines he crafts. He doesn't sound like the star of a blockbuster Japanese anime – he sounds like the kind of man who'd dedicate years of his life to making that anime. An ideal choice for a movie that seems to be reflecting on the many choices and sacrifices that men like Miyazaki and Jiro make in pursuit of perfection.
If The Wind Rises fails to completely live up to the impossible legacies set by Miyazaki's other masterpieces, it is only because the movie is telling a decidedly different story. Even through the veil of history and fiction, this is the closest we have ever gotten to a personal testament of what Miyazaki thinks about living a life dedicated to perfecting a craft. Jiro forges relationships with plenty of predictably loveable Ghibli types, but there's an intangible sense of distance in all of them that makes them less satisfying than what you'd find in Spirited Away, or My Neighbor Totoro, or Ponyo. There is romance here, and Jiro's fiancée Naoko is a fascinating character, but this is the first time that the women have been sidelined to such a degree in a major release from the studio. Even at its most tragic and moving, Jiro and Naoko's love story exists as something that flourishes in spite of his life's work, not because of it. The genius of the movie is in how you get the sense that every one of its frames hold within it a keen understanding of their cost. Whether or not Jiro can, or should, reckon with the price of his own dreams, is up for the viewer to determine.
This new Blu-ray/DVD combo set comes from GKIDS and Shout! Factory, and should look familiar to anybody who purchased the original Disney release from 2014. It contains the same pristine audio and visual quality, along with the excellent English dub, starring the likes of Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Jiro, Stanley Tucci as Caproni, and Emily Blunt as Naoko. You also get all of the original special features, so far as I can tell, including the full storyboard sequence of the movie, and the fascinating panel that Miyazaki, Anno, and singer Yumi Matsutoya participated in. On top of all that, the set also includes an hour-long episode from the “10 Years with Hayao Miyazaki” series that covers the production of The Wind Rises, and it comes with a nice booklet featuring some writing from Miyazaki and producer Toshio Suzuki that adds even more context to the film.
In other words, it's as close to a Criterion edition of The Wind Rises as we're likely to get, and a must buy for anyone who hasn't already added the film to their collection. It is the most starkly personal film in Miyazaki's filmography, and if it had actually been his swan song as a director, it would have been a perfect final bow for the artist whose legacy in the world of animation will almost certainly last forever. Directing a brilliant animated film does not come with the same heavy price as bringing a brutally effective weapon of war into the world, but there is something to be said when a man as famously devoted to pacifism as Miyazaki wants to draw the comparison anyways.