Wind Rises, The (Japan, 2013)February 27, 2014
Hayao Miyazaki has long been viewed as the world's premiere animator. His work was so revered by the founders of Pixar that, after taking over Disney's animation department, they worked out a deal with whereby the studio would distribute Miyazaki's pictures in North American theaters. The Wind Rises, Miyazaki's eleventh animated film as a director, may be his last (although this isn't the first time he has announced his retirement). If so, it's an excellent swansong - a movie that takes the hallmarks of a great career and elevates them to new heights. In terms of tone, visual beauty, and storytelling, The Wind Rises represents Miyazaki at the apex of his abilities.
Before seeing The Wind Rises, I heard comparisons to the epics of David Lean. As seemingly absurd as such comments might seem, the truth becomes evident in the viewing. This is a languidly paced biography that focuses on character over plot, allowing the viewer to absorb the story rather than having it trample past at breakneck speed. Loosely based on the life of Jiro Horikoshi (voice of Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the aviation engineer behind the design of the Japanese Zero fighter, The Wind Rises takes us on a journey from a time toward the end of World War I, when Jiro is a teenager, to the end of World War II.
Much of The Wind Rises focuses on the thought process that lead to the development of the Zero. During some sequences, Miyazaki takes us into Jiro's dreams and fantasies, as wind-blown debris and shooting stars become catalysts for his eventual design. There are also dialogue-driven sequences in which Jiro ponders real-world considerations and engineering trade-offs. Although much of the story focuses on Jiro's work, a subplot traces his romance with Nahoko Satomi (Emily Blunt), a girl he meets at the time of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. After losing track of each other, they become reacquainted some time later and eventually marry. Sadly, Nahoko is sickly and her days are numbered.
The centerpiece sequence of The Wind Rises is the earthquake and the subsequent firestorm it causes. This part of the film is rendered with impact equal to the biggest budget disaster film yet, because of the way the story is told, we never lose sight of the characters amidst the end-of-the-world imagery. Miyazaki's approach to World War II and the role played by the Zero in Japan's campaign, is treated perfunctorily. Although not ignored, World War II is more of an endnote. The Wind Rises is about the process of creation; the movie absolves Jiro of complicity in what comes after. His goal is not the crafting of a weapon or a machine of war; it's the development of an instrument of grace and beauty. Others take what to Jiro is elegant and put it to an ugly use.
American audiences have come to associate "animated film" with "suitable for children." That's not the case here. Content-wise, there's nothing objectionable about The Wind Rises (although the earthquake sequence may be too intense for young kids), this is animation for adults. The pace, content, and thematic heft aren't child-friendly. There are no cute talking animals or musical numbers. Thankfully, there's no 3-D. A lot of what transpires during the course of the narrative is understated. Mature children may be enraptured but those who tend to fidget will lose interest quickly.
The hand-drawn style embraced by Miyazaki has become a dinosaur in the industry but The Wind Rises shows the power it retains when wielded by a master. This is a rich and visually stunning motion picture. The backgrounds are like paintings with an amazing attention to detail. The characters are realized with deftness and smoothness. It's a very different experience than the one achieved by computer generated animation. The world created by Miyazaki is an artist's representation of reality but that in no way diminishes the effectiveness of the story or limits our ability to relate to the characters. If this is indeed Miyazaki's farewell effort, he has left behind a memorable parting gift.
Wind Rises, The (Japan, 2013)
Cast: Stanley Tucci, Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Martin Short, (voices) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Many Patinkin
Screenplay: Hayao Miyazaki
Music: Joe Hisaishi
U.S. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures