If the rumors are true, it seems as though The Wind Rises will be the last feature film directed by the acclaimed Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. His is a career that stretches back 50 years, during which he has been largely responsible for the popularization of the anime genre in the West, through films such as Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, all of which were produced by his production company, Studio Ghibli. His emotional, sensitive films tackle weighty issues to do with the environment, pacifism, dreams, and destiny, often presented through a series of fantastical and magical stories, nearly all of which feature a strong female protagonist.
The Wind Rises – or, to give it its original Japanese title, Kaze Tachinu – is unusual for a Miyazaki film as it is almost a biopic. Based on a short story by Tatsuo Hori, the film is essentially a fictionalized biography of the life of Jiro Horikoshi, designer of the Mitsubishi A5M and A6M Zero fighter planes that the Empire of Japan used in World War II, his relationship with his wife Naoko, and his dreams of flying, which were in turn inspired by his admiration for the Italian aircraft designer Giovanni Battista Caproni. The film was controversial in Japan, as it was seen to glamorize both the exploits of the Japanese government during World War II and the men who built “killing machines” for a living, but was praised for its visual beauty.
One constant element throughout Miyazaki’s career has been his creative relationship with composer Mamoru Fujisawa, better known in film music circles as Joe Hisaishi. The pair have worked on a dozen or so films together, dating all the way back to Nausicaä in 1984, and the music that resulted from their collaborations has been lauded as some of the best film music ever written; Miyazaki and Hisaishi are essentially Japan’s Steven Spielberg and John Williams, with similar levels of fame and popularity in their home country. Hisaishi’s scores usually contain rich, expressive passages for full orchestras and choirs, with memorable themes and a sense of lightness and elegance that very few composers have in this day and age. The Wind Rises is very much in that vein, and if this truly is to be the last feature collaboration between the two, then I can’t think of a more fitting way to bow out.
The score is built around one main and two secondary themes; the main theme is for Jiro himself, subtitled the “Journey” theme, which follows the protagonist throughout his life, and underscores his dreams of working in flight and aviation. The first secondary theme is related to the Italian aircraft designer Giovanni Battista Caproni, who acts as a sort of ‘spirit guide’ to Jiro, imparting advice and wisdom through a series of dreams and visions. The second secondary theme is for Jiro’s wife Naoko, the love of his life, who shares the hardships and difficulties that Jiro suffers while chasing his destiny.
The Journey theme has an unexpected Mediterranean feel to it, most notably through Hisaishi’s frequent use of guitars, accordions, and a warm, summery mandolin to lead the melodic line. It’s a lovely, light theme, and its multiple appearances throughout the score anchor it in place, and give the score a central element to build upon. The opening cue, “Dreamy Flight”, sounds like something you would hear emerging from a Greek taverna to entice you to step inside and sample the moussaka and stomp on the crockery, but it’s a delightful piece, and not at all related to the Hisaishi sound one has come to expect in recent scores. Later cues, such as “Determination”, “Sister”, the anticipatory “First Day of Work” and the romantic “Meeting at Karuizawa” revisit the theme in beautifully expressive tones, reflecting Jiro’s sense of destiny as well as his deeply personal relationship with the freedom of flight, while the ebullient and optimistic “Wind of Italia” is probably the most joyous rendition of the theme in the score.
The theme for Caproni, which first appears in the third cue “Engineer’s Dream”, is more noble and militaristic, with a prominent trumpet element and a more martial beat featuring smart snare drum licks. Its recapitulations, in “Illusory Giant Machine”, emphasize the legacy of Caproni on Jiro’s dreams. Caproni’s influence on Jiro is most prominent in the first half of the score, illustrating the emphasis that Jiro places on his engineering career in the early part of his life . It’s last performance comes during “Journey (Caproni’s Retirement)”, when the two themes are played in brief counterpoint with each other, and from then on the focus of the secondary theme switches from work to love, with the re-emergence of Naoko.
Naoko’s theme is more traditionally romantic, with a slightly mournful and bittersweet quality that is just luscious. Hisaishi himself plays the piano solo during its first appearance in “Meeting”, but the theme disappears for the majority of the score, only returning later in the lovely “Fate”, “Rainbow”, “Propose” and “Crossing Paths”, as Jiro and Naoko reconnect, and fall in love. The performance of theme in the more dramatic “Yearning” is a score-highlight, especially in the way the melody dances from piano to strings and back again.
This structuring of themes is one of the score’s strong points – as the main external influence in Jiro’s life changes from Caproni to Naoko, the music reflects this by switching the main secondary motif from Caproni’s theme to Naoko’s theme, both of which play alongside and around the main theme. Life is indeed a journey, but the final destination can change along the way.
Other cues of note include the soft, lullabyish “Shooting Star” which focuses on a gorgeous harp solo; the more dramatic and tense “Evacuation”, which includes a throbbing brass pulse underneath a longing, searching string figure; the effortlessly lively “Falcon” and its more impressionistic cousin “Paper Planes”, which swoop and dive like the former’s avian namesake; and the two Castorp cues, “The Magic Mountain” and “Farewell”, which allude to Thomas Mann’s celebrated novel Der Zauberberg, and the similarities between Naoko’s illness and the illness suffered by the protagonist of the book, and which features a wonderfully ebullient dance-like piano motif in the latter piece.
The three final performances of the Journey theme in the conclusive cues are just sublime; the piano and guitar duet in “Marriage” just drips with emotional intimacy, the symphonic sweep of “Farwell” is gorgeous, and the actual finale in “Kingdom of Dreams” eschews the majority of the tinkling ethnic elements and re-states the theme in its boldest form yet, with the full orchestra rising to the occasion as required, before returning to the intimacy of the mandolin to bring the score to a close.
One other thing worth mentioning, which applies to the score as a whole, is Hisaishi’s attention to detail in the orchestrations. As the score progresses, you notice that every instrument gets its chance to shine, and not just the major ones: everyone, from the piccolos and pennywhistles to the tuba and various percussion items get their moment in the sun. This has always been one of Hisaishi’s strengths as a composer – he doesn’t just have every instrument playing the same thing simultaneously so you can’t hear the detail. Instead, he picks out beautiful colors and textures in his music, taking the time to give his orchestra room to breathe, so that every flourish and nuance has meaning, and every woodwind trill, brass triplet or harp scale can be heard and appreciated for what it is intended to do. Hisaishi shares this instinct with Alexandre Desplat, which is one of the reasons I love both men’s music so much.
The J-Pop song, “Vapor Trail”, was written by Hisaishi and Yumi Matsutoya, and is performed by Matsutoya, a popular and influential singer in her home country. The song is nice enough in a 1970s soft rock ballad sort of way, although I did keep expecting the melody to turn into Procul Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale” on several occasions.
The Wind Rises is an exquisite score, rich and expressive and filled with memorable themes, with a strongly intellectual dramatic structure, beautiful instrumental touches, and the overarching sense of lightness and whimsy that has characterized so many Miyazaki/Hisaishi collaborations over the years. It still retains Hisaishi’s idiosyncratic personal compositional style, of course, and if you have never connected with it in the past, then you may find things not to your liking either. Similarly, the unexpectedly strong Mediterranean influences in the music, and the prominent inclusion of region-specific instruments throughout the score, may cause a little bit of a cultural disconnect for those expecting more Japanese stylistics to the score. For me, however, The Wind Rises is one of 2013’s best scores, and comes highly recommended for those who enjoy being swept away by Hisaishi’s personal brand of enchanting romance and fantasy.