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Telluride: Hayao Miyazaki's Final Film 'The Wind Rises' Makes North American Debut

On the same day that the 72-year-old Japanese legend announced his retirement, festivalgoers clammored to catch his new animated biopic of Jiro Horikoshi.

Kaze Tachinu
"The Wind Rises"

TELLURIDE, Colo. -- Mere hours after the Japanese anime master Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement, I caught the first North American screening of what will be his last film, The Wind Rises, an animated biopic of Jiro Horikoshi, the aeronautical engineer who designed the fighter planes that Japan used in World War II while the love of his life was dying. The film, which premiered in Venice earlier in the day and will be released stateside by Disney's Touchstone Pictures later this year, screened at the Chuck Jones Cinema, appropriately enough.

The Wind Rises deals with darker subject matter than the 10 earlier films for which the 72-year-old filmmaker is internationally known -- including Princess Mononoke (1997), the Oscar-winning Spirited Away (2001), Howl's Moving Castle (2004) and Ponyo (2008) -- but it is as visually beautiful as any of them. On the basis of its quality, Miyazaki's big announcement and the relatively weak animated competition this year, I strongly suspect that the film will be nominated for the best animated feature Oscar.

The film unfolds in 1920s and 1930s Japan, as Horikoshi, who as a child dreamed of building aircrafts, struggles to bring Japanese aviation into the modern age. Frustrated at the engineering prowess, or lack thereof, of his "poor and backward" country, he seeks information and inspiration from every source imaginable (i.e. the Germans) -- and some purely imagined (i.e. an Italian engineer named Carboni pops up in numerous dream sequences).

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In fact, what is and isn't real in the film sometimes becomes a bit blurry, but what never wavers is Horikoshi's Miyazaki-like vision and commitment: he just wants to make something beautiful, through whatever means necessary. He's not particularly patriotic; the fact that his creation will be used in the cause of war -- such as in the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor -- is not something that is even very much on his mind.

There are certain sequences in the film that are particularly striking to behold: a massive earthquake, a big rain storm, shadows of people running down an alley, a plane catching fire and crashing from the sky -- and the list goes on. But the film also has undeniable flaws: it features all sorts of unnecessary repetition and meandering, which push its runtime to 126 minutes, way too long for a relatively simple story.

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Power-producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, friends of "Miyazaki-san" who have helped his films secure better North American distribution in recent years, introduced The Wind Rises. Kennedy said that a Horkioshi film has been on the director's to-do list for years, and that he even considered making it as a live-action film. She also noted Miyazaki's retirement announcement -- which was met with gasps from many audience members who hadn't heard the news -- and Marshall added, "In our opinion, he saved his best for last."

Follow Scott on Twitter @ScottFeinberg for additional news and analysis.