You’d think that a semi-autobiographical movie about the life of a Japanese airplane engineer would be fairly tedious, but we’re talking about a film by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki here, the writer and director of the newly released (stateside at least) The Wind Rises. In the US, we treat animation, at best, as a children’s genre that is theatrically dominated by the digital prowess and storytelling of Disney Pixar. But what we have here is a film that was written, directed, and visually styled by a man that has a nearly flawless track record of astounding (mostly) hand drawn animated films (not simply “movies” or “cartoons” or even “anime”) that have captured the imaginations of generations of viewers around the world.
Hayao Miyazaki is considered one of the top filmmakers in Japan, while, outside of geek and animation-obsessed circles, he is virtually unknown in the US. The Wind Rises, his final film (due to his announced retirement last September), takes him in a slightly different storytelling direction than his previous films. Based on Miyazaki’s own manga, which was in turn based on a short story about Jiro Horikoshi, the famed designer of innovative Japanese aircraft used during World War II, The Wind Rises is a somewhat fantastical take on historic events within Japan through the early-to-mid-20th century, as seen through Jiro’s eyes.
If you’ve seen Studio Ghibli/Miyazaki films like Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle, or Spirited Away, you’ve come to expect seeing headstrong heroes pulled into vast mystical lands populated by and endless array of often indescribable, twisted creatures and the occasional inexplicably giant-faced character. The Wind Rises, oddly, has none of that. Sure, Jiro makes an engaging and sympathetic leading man, but he is simply that: a simple man with a desire to create something spectacular. The world around him is very much our own, except that it’s the beautifully rendered hillsides and villages of Japan. For those of us not familiar with such surroundings, it’s easy to view them as the landscapes of another world, but that’s just one more aspect of the film you can chalk up to Miyazaki’s genius.
It’s this lack of fantasy compared to his previous works that made me feel a bit let down at first, as I was constantly expecting some kind of demented specter around each corner to mix things up. Except for the occasional foray into Jiro’s dreams, where he chats with his aeronautical engineering hero, Giovanni Battista Caproni, often walking on the wings of their inventions mid-flight, the film is fairly grounded, playing out as a very human, real world romance. Jiro’s first love is aeronautical engineering, which is soon eclipsed by a young woman, with whom he gets to spend too little time, as Japan’s collusion with the Germans at the dawn of the second world war threatens to tear them apart (among other things).
If you’ve been waiting for this film to come to the states, no amount of reviewing was ever going to make a difference in whether you were going to see it or not. For those of you who had no idea what this film was or if you’re still on the fence, you can stop worrying about having to do a lot of reading while watching The Wind Rises. It has been dubbed by a who’s-who of English speaking film stars, which include Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Jiro, John Krasinski as his best friend Honjo, and Emily Blunt as Jiro’s love Nahoko, alongside Martin Short, Stanley Tucci, Mandy Patinkin, William H Macy, and even fimmaker Werner Herzog playing key roles throughout.
Not surprisingly, The Wind Rises was the highest grossing film of 2013 in Japan, garnering a number of awards throughout the year. While I have no illusions that it will come even close to that level of acclaim in the US, it should be on the must see list of any lover of animation or period dramas, as we’ll likely not see something like this come out of Japan for a long time, if ever again.