There are few names in Japanese animation more well known or more beloved than Hayao Miyazaki.
The acclaimed director gained international fame in 1999 with his beloved classic “Princess Mononoke,” a work that defied all expectation.
He is also the only director of Japanese animation, also commonly known as anime, to have won an Academy Award, which he received for his critically acclaimed “Spirited Away” in 2002.
A master of imagination and fantasy, Miyazaki’s latest film is an unusual departure from what he is known for. “The Wind Rises,” nominated this year for Best Animated Feature, is historical fiction.
It tells the story of Jiro Horikoshi, the Japanese inventor of prototype Mitsubishi warplanes later infamous for their use in World War II.
Miyazaki based his adaptation on the short story “The Wind Had Risen,” by Japanese poet Tatsuro Hori, and heavily fictionalized his version of Jiro Horikoshi. He created a deeply moving narrative that represents the spirit, if not the precise facts, of the man Horikoshi.
Perhaps one of Miyazaki’s most personal films, it is a hand-drawn masterpiece of subtlety and grace.
The English version of the film, directed by Gary Rydstrom and distributed in North America through Touchstone Pictures, debuted in select cities on Feb. 21, with a wide North American release on Feb. 28.
The film is brought to English audiences through an all-star cast, led by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is known for his roles in “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Inception” and “Looper.” Levitt brings a calm yet passionate voice to the film as Jiro Horikoshi, the brilliant mind that helped revolutionize the 1930s Japanese air force.
Jiro’s lifelong dream of designing airplanes forms the core of the film, as the young inventor grapples with failures, setbacks and the darker side of a nation’s imperial ambitions.
Interspersed with Jiro’s day-to-day life are a number of dream sequences, wonderfully executed. Therein, Jiro draws strength from his role model, the famed Italian airplane designer Giovanni Caproni, who spurs him on with visions of the grandeur and whimsy of flight beyond the ravages of war.
The film moves gradually through Jiro’s life, taking its time and moving far slower than the usual pace demanded by American cinema. This allows Miyazaki the narrative space to build a complex dynamic of relationships around Jiro, including his lovable busybody sister, Kayo (Mae Whitman), who chides Jiro for neglecting his family every time she sees him. John Krasinski joins the cast as Jiro’s cynical yet kindly colleague Honjo, always begging a cigarette off his friend.
Standing in equal stature with Levitt is Emily Blunt, voicing Jiro’s sweetheart, Nahoko Satomi. First meeting briefly during the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, the two meet again years later and fall in love. Their romance is bittersweet, as Nahoko has tuberculosis, giving her only a few precious months of life with Jiro.
Blunt’s and Levitt’s characters have great chemistry on screen, and Miyazaki works wonders with small details. The relationship grows naturally and beautifully, elegantly leading to its tragic conclusion.
The world Miyazaki paints is wonderfully subtle and true to life. The animation is top-notch, performing feats of wonder and beauty above and beyond what many computer-animated films accomplish. Every frame, it seems, was carefully hand-drawn, making the film a spectacle of color and light.
The film is true to the period, showing the tense political situation in the years leading up to the second world war, and not shying away from the moral quandaries posed by war and violence. “Airplanes are beautiful dreams,” says Caproni in Jiro’s dream, yet in the film, as in the real world, that dream is both bitter and sweet.
Ultimately, Jiro concludes that the world is better with his dream of flight, even if it is temporarily corrupted by war. It is a rich sentiment, drawing upon layers of maturity gained from a lifetime of making his dreams reality.
It is a fitting message that reflects Miyazaki’s own legacy.
“The Wind Rises” may not have won Best Animated Feature, but is my fervent opinion that this film represents the greatest achievement in animation in the year 2013, if not the past two decades, and handily deserved the award.
More than that, it deserves to be seen and seen again. Miyazaki’s fantasy manages to capture, if even for just a moment, the tragic beauty at the heart of life.