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After the extraordinary adventures of Porco Rosso and Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, revered animation wizard Hayao Miyazaki has become the numero uno Japanese animator at Western festivals; his mere name in the title cards, along with his Ghibli studio, brings on a round of applause. The ambitious The Wind Rises is something of a special case that will divide audiences into two camps, those who find it an unforgettably beautiful and poetic ode to life, and those who tune out to its slow-moving second act, which can wear down the patience of even the well-disposed. On the other hand, the daring subject — the engineering of technically advanced war planes by the Axis powers for use in the Second World War – is so honestly handled it should not present a problem for Western viewers. In the U.S., the film will spread its wings with fans of animation and take flight in a Walt Disney release after showcasing at Venice, Toronto and the New York Film Festival.
The amazingly detailed, somewhat old-school visuals that emphasize soulful natural scenery instantly immerse viewers in the dream world of protag Jiro Horikoshi (Hideaki Anno), a heroic, self-effacing boy who becomes a brilliant young aeronautics engineer. The character is based on the real-life Jiro Horikoshi, the man who designed Japan’s Zero fighter, used against Pearl Harbor and in kamikaze operations. It is also a tribute to poet-novelist Tatsuo Hori, who struggled with tuberculosis.
The early scenes of the film depict the 1923 earthquake which devastated Tokyo and Yokohama. It was followed by a firestorm and typhoon, all magnificently and frighteningly rendered as college-bound Jiro travels on a train. It is there he meets and saves his future love Nahoko (Miori Takimoto) as a young girl.
In these pre-war years, the studious young Jiro gets a job and is quickly promoted by the chief engineers at Mitsubishi to head the project design for a new fighter plane. Though this may not be the sexiest subject for an animation film, Miyazaki injects drama and quiet heroism into his struggles with the slide-rule and flush-riveting. Hideako Anno wins sympathy for his calm, noble voicing of the tall, bespectacled young egghead, an Einstein-like inventor whose inspiration comes from the world of his dreams.
A recurring dream of Jiro’s is meeting the flamboyant Italian airplane inventor Giovanni Caproni, who takes him on incredible flights aboard fantasy aircraft. They literally “share their dreams” of pioneering futuristic planes. Of a darker stripe is his actual encounter with Hitler’s aviation designers, who are menacing and secretive when he and his friend are sent on a mission to Germany. But not even they can be called true villains in a film that shows WW2 from the Axis side as an inevitable calamity over which people had no control. The war itself remains off-screen, except for a chilling final vision of vapor trails clawing the air above ugly dark clouds, and below them a cemetery of metal pieces from fallen planes. “Not a single plane came back,” says Jiro disconsolately. “That’s what it means to lose a war.” This attitude of regret, but not apology, makes The Wind Rises a very honest film from a great Japanese artist.
Jiro’s professional rise parallels his romantic love story with the delicate young Nahoko, a victim of the tuberculosis epidemic. They meet on vacation in a mountain resort, which Miyazaki compares to the sanatorium in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. A debonair German visitor (voiced by Stephen Alpert) confides to Jiro that “the Nazis are hoodlums” and is dubbed “Castorp” by the young people after Mann’s protagonist. Their courtship and Nahoko’s illness take center stage in the film’s second half, where the film begins to lose focus as personal elements of the story prevail.
The titles comes from an oft-quoted poem by Paul Valery, which simply recites: “The wind is rising. We must try to live.”
Venue: Venice Film Festival (competition), Aug. 31, 2013
Production companies: Studio Ghibli, Nippon Television Network, Dentsu Hakuhodo DYMP, Walt Disney Japan, Mitsubishi, Toho, KDDI.
Cast: Hideaki Anno, Miori Takimoto, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Masahiko Nishimura, Stephen Alpert, Morio Kazama, Keiko Takeshita, Mirai Shida
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Screenwriter: Hayao Miyazaki
Producer: Toshio Suzuki
Supervising animator: Kitaro Kosaka
Production and sound designer: Koji Kasamatsu
Art director: Yoji Takeshige
Music: Joe Hisaishi
Editor: Takeshi Seyama
Sales: Wild Bunch
No rating, 126 minutes.
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