"All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful." So said aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi, whose Mitsubishi A5M and A6M Zero served the Empire of Japan during WWII. Amid some controversy, living-legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki has written and directed his own latest "something beautiful," this one a hand-drawn fantasia about Horikoshi: "The Wind Rises."
The title, borrowed from a Hori Tatsuo novel, alludes to a line from a Paul Valéry poem: "The wind is rising! We must try to live!" Life is too short not to take every opportunity, in one's vocational and romantic callings, and thusly Miyazaki frames his heavily fictionalized take on Horikoshi. Horikoshi (voiced in the English-language version by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) literally dreams of airplanes, inspired by Italian engineer Count Gianni Caproni (Stanley Tucci). Horikoshi sets out to study engineering and land a job at an airplane manufacturer that will build his planes.
On this path, he also encounters a young woman named Naoko (Emily Blunt), who becomes his muse. Naoko's struggle with tuberculosis informs one of the story's deep-set ironies: In her devotion, Naoko insists upon Horikoshi achieving his dreams of flight, but in the process, the couple loses valuable time to spend with each other. When lives are accounted in the end, Horikoshi and Miyazaki must ask, was it all worth it? Did this (fictionalized) Horikoshi make the right choice to achieve his dream, no matter the cost to others?
"The Wind Rises" has a pastel-pastoral quality that romanticizes, with Impressionist stylings, the Quixotic pursuit of invention. Like much Japanese animation of Miyazaki's generation, the film is sentimental and sweet, but as much as it deeply understands the artistic mindset of a driven creator, it also acknowledges the darker implications of a genius' tunnel vision. Horikoshi has literal nearsightedness that also serves as a metaphor for what enables him to block out doubt and achieve success while willfully ignoring moral questions.
Like many Studio Ghibli productions, "The Wind Rises" has gotten the red-carpet treatment from stateside distributor Disney (under its adult-skewing Touchstone Pictures banner), including seven-time Oscar winner Gary Rydstrom to direct the English version, and a cast that also includes John Krasinski, Martin Short, Jennifer Grey, Werner Herzog, William H. Macy, Elijah Wood and Mandy Patinkin. Animation notwithstanding, the audience for "The Wind Rises" isn't wee, though middle-schoolers willing to roll with its longueurs and provocations will be primed for an interesting post-matinee discussion with parents.
Despite showcase scenes of Horikoshi's dreams and test flights, "The Wind Rises" in some ways Miyazaki's most grounded film. Since the ground is the story's real enemy, established in part by the fearsome 1923 Kant? quake, the escapist rarity of flight gives it all the more power. Much of the film concerns the plodding work and gentle, if not delicate, soul required to achieve beauty, another way in which "The Wind Rises," possibly Miyazaki's swan song, skews to stealth autobiography.