Hayao Miyazaki claims that the Oscar-nominated The Wind Rises, his 11th and most recent feature film, will be his last. If that's true, the godfather of Japanese anime has bowed out with a near-masterpiece.
Throughout this visually spellbinding and leisurely paced film, Miyazaki tells the romanticized true story of Jiro Horikoshi, an idealistic aeronautical engineer stuck between two world wars in a Japan torn by economic crisis, disease, and natural disaster. As a young and slightly mysterious boy, Jiro is obsessed with the literally and figuratively transportive quality of aircraft. But his poor eyesight means that he has no chance of becoming a pilot, so he fantasizes about designing airplanes instead—studying American aviation magazines with the aid of an English dictionary and exchanging philosophical tidbits, like "Airplanes are not made for war or money," with Caproni, the flamboyant Italian engineer he befriends in a shared dream-space.
As an adult, Jiro realizes his dream, but it comes with a moral cost. After graduating college, he takes a job at Mitsubishi, designing vehicles of death and destruction like the Mitsubishi A5M and A6M Zero, used by the Japanese in World War II, instead of the peacefully majestic aircrafts zooming through his whimsical mind.
But Miyazaki doesn't revel in bleakness. Jiro's story may be tragic, but Miyazaki uses that tragedy as an occasionally dark contrast on a vibrantly colorful palette. (Tellingly, the only battle scenes here are brief and impressionistic—foreshadowed images of falling bombs and nose-diving planes.) Instead of focusing on the horrors that Jiro's designs ultimately cause, Miyazaki zooms in on the character's ambition and childlike wonder.
In its even slower-moving second half, The Wind Rises grows even more sensitive, morphing into a tragic romance when Jiro falls in love with Naoko, a beautiful stranger dying of tuberculosis (whom, conveniently, he rescued years earlier from the wreckage of a train-ride earthquake). But for all its sweetness and inevitable tear-jerking, this side plot feels shoehorned and somewhat inconsequential; in a sense, The Wind Rises was already a tragic romance between Jiro and his dreams.
Give credit to Miyazaki's richly layered screenplay—this is a simple story about a ridiculously un-simple concept, though it rarely drifts into cheap sentimentality or politics. And though it's rooted in a more traditional dramatic plot than his supernatural work, like Spirited Away and 2008's Ponyo, The Wind Rises still basks in Miyazaki's signature ethereal glow. That being said, the dialogue is occasionally a bit stilted, intensified by the flatness of the English translation. ("I'd almost forgotten what a rainbow is like," one character says. "Isn't life beautiful?," another replies.) Additionally, the overemphasis on poet Paul Valery's titular phrase ("The wind is rising/We must try to live") is a bit on the nose.
This English-language version also features some awkward moments from the voice cast. While the invincible Joseph Gordon-Levitt brings a quiet warmth to the lead role, Mae Whitman's cartoonish approach as Nahoko is a frequent but thankfully brief annoyance. Werner Herzog's thick-as-molasses delivery brings a suitable weirdness to German oddball Castorp, while John Krasinski is a stand-out as Jiro's best friend, Honjo (though, let's face it—it's a bit distracting to hear Jim Halpert's voice and see a Japanese man's face).
But that nitpicking is inevitably squelched by Miyazaki's technical grandeur. His films have the look of distinctively timeless Japanese anime, but they're rich and visually quirky—characters move with a robotic, stop motion–like gait, and there are colorful establishing shots more vivid than anything ever produced with CGI. The pivotal earthquake scene, with its disintegrating streets and burning skies, is one for the animation time capsules, as is Jiro's opening pilot fantasy, which veers between dream and nightmare. Meanwhile, the organic sound design is equally superb, from the imaginative pitter-patter of an aircraft engine to the thick footsteps on a creaky floor.
It's a rarity in the medium of animation, but Miyazaki understands the immense power of subtlety, of stillness. For all the film's visual splendor, the moments here that truly stick are the smallest ones—like Jiro exploring the architectural wonder of a fish bone or developing romantic chemistry through the whizzing of a paper airplane. In spite of its flaws, The Wind Rises is a quietly potent swan song.