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Thursday, February 27, 2014

Hayao Miyazaki takes flight once more with 'The Wind Rises'

PROJECT RUNWAY: Animator Hayao Miyazaki brings aviation history to life with The Wind Rises
  • Touchstone Pictures
  • PROJECT RUNWAY: Animator Hayao Miyazaki brings aviation history to life with 'The Wind Rises'
Perhaps no filmmaker - live-action or otherwise - has more vividly conveyed the exhilaration of flying than Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. For decades Miyazaki has directed classic cartoon features, most of which find pretexts to defy gravity. Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli has given the world the broomstick-riding heroine of Kiki's Delivery Service, the literally pig-headed aviator of Porco Rosso and the sinuous airborne dragon of Spirited Away. Before steampunk was cool, Miyazaki launched airships in 1986's Castle in the Sky.

Now 73, the director has been hinting for years that his latest film might be his final flight. There's a definite valedictory quality to his latest release, The Wind Rises, which may not be quite as accessible as his younger fans expect. Until now, most of his films have been coming-of-age fantasy tales, while The Wind Rises offers a bittersweet historical biopic that segues from one lovely set piece to the next.

The Wind Rises is loosely based on the life of aviation engineer Jiro Horikoshi, designer of the A6M "Zero" fighters employed by Japan in World War II. The film introduces Jiro as a young boy who sends away for English aviation journals and dreams of gliding over his hometown in a makeshift aircraft. Too near-sighted to be a pilot, as a young man Jiro labors at drafting tables as he pursues an engineering career. You can imagine Miyazaki, famed for drawing his own storyboards, having similar youthful experiences as an aspiring cartoonist. The film capture's Jiro's creative process when he finds a curved fishbone in his lunch and incorporates the shape in his aircraft design.

The Wind Rises follows Jiro's career through some turbulent decades of Japanese history, as it struggles to match the West as an industrial power. In depicting a 1920s earthquake, Miyazaki renders the ground as rippling like a shook bed sheet, with buildings and railroad tracks folding in on themselves. The sequence inevitably conjures imagery of the Hiroshima bombing, and has such an impact that it upstages the rest of the movie.

Critics in Japan questioned Miyazaki choice to dramatize the life of a man who designed tools of war, but The Wind Rises hinges on a theme that planes are ennobling inventions with the potential for misuse. Miyazaki's pacifism frequently comes through. At one point Jiro visits a Junkers aviation plant in Germany and sees hints of the upcoming Holocaust.

Throughout the film, the wind proves to be an agent of fate and romance. Jiro meets his future girlfriend Naoko when his hat blows from a train and she catches it. They reunite years later when the wind catches her umbrella, and they later flirt by tossing paper airplanes to each other. Naoko struggles with illness, however, which turns the film's second hour into a very old-fashioned kind of movie melodrama, with a swoony tone but drowsy pace.

I've only seen the film's Japanese version, but the English language dub features the voices of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, Stanley Tucci and Werner Herzog. At times the film's use of dream scenes feel like a crutch to add more visual spectacle to its account of Jiro's life. Nevertheless, they give Miyazaki's imagination to soar, with memorable scenes including Jiro taking a stroll on a flying plane's wing with the Italian designer Caproni, who serves as his imaginary mentor. "Airplanes are beautiful dreams! Engineers turn dreams into reality!" exclaims Caproni, who could just as easily be speaking of animators.

The Wind Rises. 4 stars. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Rated PG-13. Opens Feb. 28. At area theaters.

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