If “The Wind Rises” is Hayao Miyazaki’s final film, as the great Japanese animator has claimed, it also may be his least typical. “Typical” isn’t a word usually associated with Miyazaki, whose films encompass epic eco-fables (“Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind,” “Princess Mononoke”), timeless children’s classics (“My Neighbor Totoro,” “Kiki’s Delivery Service”), surreal folklore fantasies (“Spirited Away,” “Howl’s Moving Castle”), and aeronautic pigs (“Porco Rosso”). But he has never tackled a real-life subject before, and “The Wind Rises” is — on the face of it, anyway — a biopic about Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of Japanese fighter planes used during World War II.
Should you see it? Of course you should. Anything Miyazaki does is worth your time. But the movie’s a gorgeous, problematic anomaly in an illustrious career.
“The Wind Rises” is one of this year’s Oscar nominees for best animated feature, and Disney is releasing it in this country mainly in a very good dubbed version featuring a top-flight Hollywood cast (some theaters, including the Kendall, will also screen a subtitled version). For much of its running time, the film’s an exquisitely realized historical drama with a cruel irony hovering in the background. Horikoshi (voiced by Zach Callison as a boy and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an adult) is a dreamer, an artist — an airplane designer so obsessed with the idea of human flight and the engineering minutiae needed to realize it that he barely exists in the real world. Yet the machines he and his colleagues build are used to kill people by the thousands.
How does Jiro — and thus Miyazaki — feel about this? Sad, kinda, or so it seems. The hero and his more worldly best friend Honjo (John Krasinski) understand that to realize their passion they have to work for a government that sees airplanes as tools for conquest and destruction. Yet that destruction is kept largely offscreen, alluded to but unseen. The film’s position is that the yoking of dreamers to political ends for which they care little is an unhappy necessity.
Which is fine and ironic and touching while ignoring the terrible losses of life actually wreaked by Horikoshi’s Zero fighter and other planes, not to mention the Chinese and Korean forced labor that built them. Miyazaki is a long-avowed pacifist, and this film has been criticized by the right in Japan over its implicit negative stance toward the country’s military expansion. (The left hasn’t been especially kind to it, either.) But the focus on Jiro’s wonky nobility, his inner life and personal relationships, amounts to artistic blindness.
What Miyazaki does see, though, is so rapturously conceived, drawn, and animated that the film can’t be ignored. Horikoshi’s fantasies of flight, sparked in childhood by the exploits of an Italian designer named Caproni (Stanley Tucci), become an alternate-world Eden filled with outsized fantasy airships, one to which the hero returns for inspiration again and again.
Tokyo between the wars is meticulously re-created down to the last trolley car and wood-frame house, and the film finds a gentle humor in the byplay between Jiro the studious genius and his superiors at the plant (Martin Short and Mandy Patinkin). (The film also features nonstop, period-appropriate smoking — another source of controversy here and in Japan.) The vocal presence of German director Werner Herzog as Castorp, a cheerful European spy with unclear allegiances, is an added touch of the bizarre in the dubbed version.
An early highlight of “The Wind Rises” is the re-creation of the devastating Great Kanto earthquake that leveled Tokyo in 1923: a depiction of natural upheaval that, more than anything in the film, epitomizes both the painterly qualities of Miyazaki’s art — Hiroshige would approve — and his sense of animist chaos lurking just beneath the complacent surface of human civilization, ready to burst loose.
That this is the most violent scene in a film dealing with warplanes is an irony that seems to have eluded its maker. “The Wind Rises” devotes its second half to the romance and marriage of Jiro and Naoko (Emily Blunt), a love object presented as all the more pure for her incurable tuberculosis. In its final scenes, the film soars on wings of sorrow, but the loss is inwardly directed, hermetic. Is Miyazaki actually saying that World War II might have been unfortunate but what happened to Jiro was the real tragedy?
It’s unclear, as is much about this dazzling, frustrating experience. Over the course of a legendary four-decade career, Miyazaki has bent the laws of art and animation to his own magnificent whims. How curious — and sad, kinda — that his final work tackles a subject that refuses to bend.