Miyazaki's love of flight should come as little surprise to anyone who has seen more than a couple of his movies, as most, if not all, feature some sort of triumphal flying sequence. The Wind Rises feels like the natural culmination of this, a movie about how the purity and beauty of flight can be an end to itself, even in the face of the militarism that funds it. The film is a fictionalised biography of legendary Japanese aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi, whose work for Mitsubishi in the 1930s lead to the creation of the A6M Zero, one of the most iconic fighters of the Second World War.
The movie sets out its stall early on, with the young Jiro dreaming of flying, only to have his dreams interrupted by dark, looming visions of aerial warfare. He also dreams of Giovanni Caproni, the Italian pioneer of passenger aviation, whose own work was more often than not in the military field himself. Jiro dreams of aircraft that are joys to fly, but inevitably winds up building them in Japans growing military-industrial complex. The film doesn't really explore this in depth, focusing instead on a more aspiration love of aircraft, although a few darker incidents occur, mostly pushed towards contacts in or from Germany, which does feel like a slight deflection.
Meanwhile the film brings in Jiros love for Naoko, and the relationship between them. In some ways it's played for contrast - the sweet but grounded concerns for the ill woman versus the lofty concerns about making health aircraft, and as one wanes, the other booms. Its gentle, and beautiful, and sad, but if I'm being really honest, it also lacks bite. In both its main arcs, the film tip-toes around a darker, and possibly more interesting set of conflicts, and settles for a warmer, safer feel, even for it's ambiguous ending in a vision of the ruin of Japanese Might.
Where is shines is the animation itself. The flying sequences are uniformly great, soaring and leaping through the skies on the roar of engines. The sound-scape too is clever and interesting, with choral sounds sporadically replacing mechanical ones, as if the audience too can hear the song the characters do from their machines. It's the sort of subtle but inspired touch that floats throughout the film. In the end, I don't think is one of Studio Ghibli's best, to be honest, but it's still well worth the time to seek out.