Thursday, February 20, 2014

Dream Weaver: "Wind Rises" takes a while to soar, but still soulful, gorgeous Miyazaki

The Wind Rises (2014)
126 min., rated PG-13.

Special Note: Released for one week in New York and Los Angeles in December of 2013, "The Wind Rises" is being re-released in the U.S. as an English-dubbed version, featuring voice talents of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Martin Short, Werner Herzog, William H. Macy, Darren Criss, Mae Whitman, Mandy Patinskin, Jennifer Grey, Stanley Tucci, Elijah Wood, and Ronan Farrow. Looks like a great voice cast, but it goes to show how we American audiences need things spelled out for us. Then again, if recognizable stars and no subtitles will turn wider audiences into ticket buyers for an artistic film, then so be it. The following review is in relation to the Japanese-voiced, English-subtitled version, the way it was intended to be seen.

Studio Ghibli and its founder, 72-year-old Japanese animation visionary Hayao Miyazaki (2013's "From Up on Poppy Hill"), have always veered toward an uniquely poetic experimental style with surreal, manga-derived fantasy and mysticism in his narrative films. Having announced his retirement several times in the past, the master seems serious this time. If that's the case and Miyazaki's eleventh feature marks his final film, "The Wind Rises" goes out on a high note as a bittersweet farewell. His usual output of films can't be reduced to being called "cartoons" or thrown-together throwaways to fill a niche market they are all too visually beautiful, resonant, thematic, and altogether special for that. While not a patch on 2002's vastly imaginative and enchantingly phantasmagoric masterpiece "Spirited Away," the filmmaker's latest is still a finely crafted work of art that counts twice as his most grounded and most personal. Leaving one with plenty to admire but fewer chances to connect emotionally, this is arguably lesser Miyazaki, but Miyazaki nonetheless.

Set during the lead-up to World War II within Japan's aviation industry, "The Wind Rises" is Miyazaki's fictionalized biography of famed fighter-plane engineer Jiro Horikoshi (voiced by Hideaki Anno). As a child, Jiro dreams of flying, but his nearsightedness keep him from making pilot. When he sits down to read an English magazine, he meets Italian aeronautical engineer Gianni Caproni (Mansai Nomura) in a dream, inspiring him to design airplanes. His dream mentor offers sage advice, "Artists are only creative for ten years," and wishes Jiro will live his ten to the fullest. Flash-forward to Jiro as a college student, the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 strikes Tokyo. He ends up saving a young girl named Naoko (Miori Takimoto) and her injured nanny whom he meets on the train. After the natural disaster, Tokyo's economy is in the tank and Jiro is an engineer, brought in to manufacturing company Mitsubishi by his perpetually cranky, diminuitive boss, Kurokawa (Masahiko Nishimura). More years pass and Jiro is promoted to design a Navy-sponsored fighter plane before he meets the older Naoko. They fall in love, but Naoko suffers from tuberculosis. Will she live to see the day that Jiro perfects his prototype of his first successful invention of flight?

Miyazaki's affinity for strange and fantastical world-building is mostly in short supply here, so there will be no reprisal of "stink spirits," old hags, or anything of that otherworldly nature. Instead, "The Wind Rises" is more of a sprawling story of aviation, dreams, history, and the Japanese culture. Like any sprawling historical or biographical live-action film, the storytelling is deliberately winding, not immediately focused and takes a good thirty minutes to get to the point. By the same logic, Miyazaki always allows his narrative to breathe and develop organically, unlike so many of America's fast-paced animated films. If one isn't swept up in Jiro at the drawing board and shop-talk of plane design involving the shaping of a wing like a mackerel bone's curvature, the Jiro-Naoko relationship finally comes in and pulls off a surprising poignancy. Though the film has received some ardent controversy over following an engineer of a death machine (the Zero planes used in Pearl Harbor) as the protagonist, Miyazaki does not glorify war, but merely reflects the time.

Accompanying the film's gentle, soulful spirit is gorgeous visual poetry, which further confirms the creativity and care Miyazaki puts into each of his visual poems. The 2-D hand-drawn animation retains the purity of a good old-fashioned drawing and weaves a dreamlike mood, especially during the magical-realism interludes of Jiro and Caproni walking on the wings of planes. Arresting imagery abounds in each shot, including the startling visualization of the earthquake and a fire looming over Tokyo to Jiro's soaring designs becoming fiery failures. Its title deriving from a poem by Paul Valéry, "The Wind Rises" keeps coming back to the line, "The wind is rising, we must strive to live." It is a profound lyric that celebrates inspiration and imagination like an ode to not only plane engineers but the dreamer in all of us. Even if this really is the masterful dreamweaver's swang song, one last warm-hearted feast for the eyes is enough cause for celebration.


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