The Wind Rises sound design analysis I – the oneiric realm of Jiro (part 1)

The oneiric realm in this analysis concerns the dreams that Jiro experiences when he is sleeping and the visions that predict the outcome of a new aircraft construction or of relevant events in the narrative. These visions (while lacking a better term for the intensive and complex world of Miyazaki) emerge on circumstance, many times illustrating the genius aircraft designer abilities to understand the flaws or virtues of an airplane model.

The first part of the sound analysis of The Wind Rises is going over each one of the oneiric realms in this film. In the beginning of each scene, I provide the approximate time of its start, and a brief description of the plot. This is so that those who have not yet watched the film can also follow. So, with no further due:

1/ [00:01:07] A dark premonition

This dream provides a glance of the future main events in the narrative: Jiro happily flights over the countryside on an airplane that could have been made by himself until his poor sight makes him lose control of it upon the premonitory sight of a colossal flying machine, hanging a vast number of anthropomorphic bombs. One of the man-bombs strikes violently in his direction, destroying Jiro’s airplane and launching him on a slow free fall, where a steam train is seen running on the background.

The realistic sounds of Jiro walking up the roof with the straight picture cut from his close-up seem like reality. The day seems to be rising – in addition to the blue colours of a dawn, a few early birds and the stillness of the winds compose the  start of a new day.

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With focus and dedication, Jiro walks to the entrance of his aircraft – sliding his hand through it, which sound is by no means discrete or literal: the sync with the picture is almost all we need to be convinced to the point we don’t think about it much. In a medium-high pitch this could also be a the hiss of wind coming through a forgotten opening of a window; the ascending pitch is in remarkably perfect consonance with the musical phrase on the moment.

Jiro enters his airplane, adjusts his aviator gloves and starts the  artisanal machine. By now we have noticed the sound effects of the valves and exhaust pipes made of human mouth sounds and with vocalisations. The first engine starts and it’s clear that human voice is used to portray this activity. But once the propeller activates a low rumble sound effects is introduced, and a sound effect of a servo ascending is applied to the airplane rising, triggered by Jiro’s pulling the lever, and it’s in harmony with the music score. One occurrence with the sound that emphasises the oneiric dimension of this scene is the ‘dreamy’ quality of the reverb applied on the last blow of the machine lifting before it goes crossing the skies [00:02:03].

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If we thought before of this being a dream, perhaps we just changed our minds once we see him flying over the land and villages so enveloped we are on the scene. Indeed it seems just like another day is rising for a special boy.
The flight is harmonious over rivers, green fields and chimneys and we continue to hear the mouth made sounds of the airplane pieces – the valve and at times the engine roar – as it approaches our point of view. Although it’s highlighted with music and the picture’s editing tempo, the audience might have a sensation of strangeness on the close-up of the young women on the balcony as they are muted at the same time their expressions show enthusiasm and contentment.

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Moments like this that have been treated with silence have been explained by Jeff Wexler in an interview about the English language dub:

Miyazaki-san very much wanted to have fewer sounds and voices in the film. Rather than having a mic on everybody going by, he really wanted to go back to the idea of having a mic over the person’s vision, if it were a live-action film. [1]

It’s plausible to think that with the loud engine and propeller sounds Jiro is not able to hear the people waving at him. Even so, considering the audience is expecting a common approach to sound design (in which it would include some happy vocal expressions), the women’s muted voices bring the sensation of strangeness provoking the anticipation of what occurs next: black anthropomorphic bombs are now introduced in the picture far up over Jiro’s plane; these bombs are depicted with sounds that are not easily recognisable by the audience – at least in the western sound culture -, which stresses the unsettling feeling upon these objects. Despite the unfamiliarity of the sounds, one can realise that they mimic the self-movement of the objects. After listening a couple of times, once can possibly consider that:

  • there is a human character to the sounds due to our ability to recognise an human articulation, although it has an overall feeling of an estrange life form;
  • it resembles frogs’ croaks, together with their pulsating, stretching and contracting movements;
  • the rhythm can be as the cadence of soldiers marching.

It is as those are devices or life forms from another world, something that can only be portrayed this way in an anime.  The music is by now gone as the ‘mothership’ is revealed with all its threatening apparatus and again the use of silence on the facial expressions of Jiro is accentuating the oneiric plane. Underneath the mentioned sound effects, a sound like a drone begins, with the character of an engine and of air, resembling industrial ventilation but on a deeply dark tone. The audience will hear this several more times throughout the film and we will point them out on these articles

Jiro pulls his aviator goggles to his eyes and we become one with him observing what he observes: the double, blurred and dazed vision of the titanic air machine with all the bombs hanging by long cables. The sound of his airplane is like that of a motor (clearly made with human voice) that stretchse and deforms is brilliantly fused with the impersonation of Jiro’s confusion and horror response to this scary vision and of his poor eye-sight. The fact that this sound effect has predominantly human voice on its construction establishes an important indication of Jiro’s state without falling into a childish portrait of the moment.

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The frame that follows show us Jiro losing control of his ship, which is perceived by the use of the mouth-made sounds – which sound energetic and louder in the mix – and soon a strong single backfire that resembles a single deep coughing.

Jiro takes away his goggles only to understand he has no way to escape the anthropomorphic bomb that has been released to hit him. We switch back to Jiro’s point of view and hopelessly we see the bomb approaching violently with a tense rise vocal choir. On the precise moment of impact one voice effect on the low register is added with a release coming from the choir rise. Any use of big clanks and explosions common sound effects are absent and prove to be not necessary to create a believable scene of a machine being hit and ripped apart.

Next we see Jiro left alone in the sky on free fall and realise that all the previous sound construction is gone; now, it’s only high pitch sound elements with a falling yet steady character with the sensation of a frozen moment: the very thin wind fife with what could be the train whistle, on a descendent movement to portray Jiro’s fall – even though the train is approaching the center of the frame. Only a few elements in the foreground move, which are characterised by their low-end pitch: his glove that is ripped from his hand and goes up disappearing to nowhere, some subtle bursts of his clothes. Throughout this entire dream we have yet to know Jiro’s voice.

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A very fast upwards sweep brings us back to reality to see the young boy sleeping.

2/ [00:07:09] Revelations about Jiro’s path, his mentor Caproni and war

This second dream is very significant as it ditactes Jiro’s future and introduces important ethic values. Jiro meets Count Caproni, the italian aeronautics engineer he admires, and a relationship between the two is established in the dream world. Caproni reveals to Jiro that until the war is over, airplanes will be created for destruction and shows him his future plan of building a big aircraft to carry passengers instead of bombs. Jiro asks him if he thinks he can one day design airplanes, since he can never be a pilot due to being near-sighted. The Italian designer positively affirms that engineers turn dreams in reality but flying an airplane is simple. Jiro is unquestionably happy with this revelation and as he wakes up he reveals to his mother he his going to be an aeronautical engineer.

Later at night, he lays in the same roof we saw before, and both the continuation of the music and the natural night sounds (quietness and crickets) conveys us the impression of a safe place. Indeed his little sister joins him and while he is focusing his sight on the shooting stars, we are taken to another plan, maybe a dream or an imaginary scenery, that rises above the troposphere with a soft airy ascendent sound effect: airplanes with the colours of the Italian flag against a colourful sky.

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We see already on Jiro’s intrigued expression a reflection of these airplanes crossing the skies, as if telling us of two dimensions merging. We are sudden and immediately with Jiro on a grass field where the airplanes fly low, and their sound is made of vocalisations against a dissonant drone that dresses the scene. While this might seem like a wonderful dream where Jiro is about to meet his idol Caproni, the dark atmosphere that the drone sound is creating conveys an unsettling feeling. The propellers’ sound effect is mouth-made and that sound is triggered when Jiro turns his head noticing the dozens of airplanes about to pass him by. Contrasting with the previous dream, we hear all about Jiro, his footsteps on the grass, his voice, his clothes. Count Caproni climbs down an airplane to meet the Japanese boy on the ground. The airplanes get distant from the two dreamers leaving more room for the sound to focus on the dialogue between the two. The attention is now on the men on each aeroplane indicated by Caproni; althought they have human colours and features (opposed to the dark silhouettes in the previous dream) they are almost faceless and the unsettling sound is slightly intensified; we then understand the quality of this atmosphere when the Italian aeronautical engineer says “they will bomb the enemy city. Most of them will not return”. We are then briefly presented with an almost muted – a dream within a dream – apocalyptical aircraft war scene. The vision within a dream is composed of a high-pitched eerie wind whistling, on top of a subtle rumble, which crosses to the main dream and fades out the moment we see the impressive transportation airplane that Caproni shows to Jiro, sharing his own dream project. “She” is also made of mostly mouth-made sounds giving the impression of the heavy machine it is, with an overall positive accentuation, set by the absence of dissonance or eerie sound. After all, with a sense of honour Caproni says that airplanes are beautiful dreams, not tools for war. Finally, after  his positive message, he flights up in the night sky and a reverb in his farewell words is applied translating both his physical distance from Jiro and the start of a transition from dream to reality.

3/ [22:54] Fire and Water

Jiro arrives in Tokio’s university in the midst of the chaos perpetuated by the fire started with the devastating earthquake. He and Honzo are sit down next to a huge pile of books saved from the building, trying to rest for a while. Brought by the wind, a postcard featuring Caproni and his dreamt aircraft, lands at Jiro’s feet. We then see Caproni who watches his creation from a boat, along with a photographer registering the noble moment. The airplane ends up torn apart in the ocean because the structures that hold the wings completely break. In great frustration, but on a rather comic moment, the engineer throws the camera into the ocean. He and Jiro exchange a few words, each on their realm.

An interesting fusion between Jiro and Caproni is deepen within time, space and narrative. Jiro is reminded of the italian engineer when he sees the postcard. Breaking the chaotic fire scene, we are now with Caproni who is watching flying tests of his newly built transportation airplane. There is a significant contrast between the two scenes: Jiro is surrounded by fire, Caproni is surrounded by water. The opposing elements approximate with the crafted sound transitions between each other:

  • first, on the close-up of Jiro, many sound elements cease on the background to direct attention to his words;
  • Caproni throwing the camera on the water has a sound that could also be of a strong wind gulf, and this sound effect enables the transition back to Jiro and Honzo’s location whose wind burst changes the direction of the fire endangering Jiro and his surroundings;
  • the crepitating fire sound and low tone are maintained when Caproni speaks to the Japanese boy and while the other elements are suppressed, all the diagetic sounds return when Jiro is on-screen replying to the italian engineer.
  • his latest words, while throwing the ripped film to the sea, cross the transition to a rather appalling vision, with a building repleted of flames against a nocturnal background.

In similar way to the beginning of this scene, to finalise it, the sound designer gives the words space by continuing only with the crepitating fire sound effects and ongoing low tone, only charging with eerie wind sound effects once Caproni has done quoting le vent se léve / Il faut tenter de vivre.

4/ [34:30] Jiro’s immersion in his work

On his first day at the Nagoya’s Mitsubishi office, Jiro gets deeply immersed on the project assigned to him – designing the wing strut fitting for the Falcon. It’s perhaps on this scene that we truly acknowledge Jiro’s genius mind – not only because he is introduced to the office as such, by his boss Kurokawa, but we understand that in his mind, as he draws and calculates he is able to visualise the practical outcome of his project. He is immersed in the visualisation of a beautiful airplane with weak wing struts that breaks itself apart. 

Before the oneiric realm itself, the music dandles us for about half a minute to the pace of Jiro’s working mind. He then immerses himself over his desk where he crosses again the realm of the moment. On the sound domain this passage is created with an unlikely transition that connects the sound of the sharp pencil Jiro writes with (on the real world) and the boat outlying sound (on the oneiric dimension), along a lengthy cross-fade. With a burst of wind, we finally see the projected grey-white airplane made of apparently purely mechanic sound effects that seem to represent the propeller and maybe the exhaust, wouldn’t it be for the  voice sound effects preceding and following the break of this imagined engineering piece:

  • an airy choir rise when the audience is shown the struts, as if it has X-ray properties;
  • hoarse horror-like voices following the breakage of the struts throwing the airplane into a terrifying descent.

Some of the pieces break entirely while others seem to shred like paper. We return to the working room, called back by his friend about lunch time, while Jiro is still entangled on his brutal vision of which we see fragments vanishing around him.

Screen Shot 2017-04-09 at 18.52.04 In the background, the other engineers are also leaving the room for lunch break, getting up from the chairs and putting their jackets on. While everything seems very casual, if one listens closely the foley sound effects, it can imagine them to represent a solid – but maybe scattered piece – hitting the water surface and be forever muted, as if it still happening on the oneiric realm.

5/ [00.53:02] A dream of loss in Germany

Jiro is temporarily sent to Germany with his friend and colleague Honzo to see the country’s aeronautical engineering technology. After a long day, Honzo feels restless and takes Jiro for a walk at night where they continue discussing the state of things: war, poverty and airplane technology. We see Jiro walking in the snow, where a train is arriving and a Japanese airplane crosses the clouds from the skies exploding and scattering  itself all over ground around Jiro.

Mayakazi takes us directly to a dimension that can or not be Jiro’s dream. He is walking by itself on the snow and there is nothing else but the remains of an aircraft wing semi-burried on the ground, which metal structures are heard discretely shacked by the wind on a thung, in the moment we see them. A steam train arrives sonorously with a screeching sound followed by the common whistle. Hiro is approaching it but something else gets his attention. Something he heard before: a sinister baleful continuous tone just beyond the clouds, which yellow lights we see reflected, that crosses them like ripping their tissues, in a trembling roar, as the continuous tone descends with the then revealed japanese airplane. The piece of aircraft is on fire and breaking apart in flamed pieces on its way to crash on the soft snow; both the explosion and the debris that touches the white ground has a plump sound effect made with human voice, without the use of a common explosion sound effect; it is ominous like a living identity.

  • the first explosion we assist has a low-pitched sound effect to it, like a long and round backfire
  • the second is similar, but louder and shorter. A short whistling sound with a screeching quality highlights the dimension of this second explosion that rends the flying machine. They resemble some of the effects used on the earthquake.
  • many of the pieces that hit the snow have a sound to it, like an animalistic expression which biggest one is the wing with the Japanese red circle that falls slower and heavier with a a very low-pitched gush sound.

Jiro starts to walk from the accident scene when we hear Honzo calling him back from his sleep. Curiously, Jiro continues sleeping deeply, but it is the audience that is back into the real world.

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*Many thanks to Elizabeth Carlyon for her feedback on the previous version of the text.

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