This is a story of Japan between the great world wars of the past century as told through the semi-fictional endeavors and romance of a leading pioneer of aviation.
Its heart-breaking and at times sad tale probes the nature of dreams, love, national madness and militarism from the prospective of a dreamy youth. His head in the clouds, he never quite gets a firm grip on earth’s unstable soil.
Not exactly kids’ stuff, right?
Of course, animes, manga series and even cartoons themselves have been designed for adults especially in Japan whose animation traditions differ considerably from American ones. But rare is the full-length animation film that could just as easily been produced as a live-action film — albeit it one with an astronomical budget.
Put it this way: A scene focused on the use of flush rivets in the design and assemblage of a fighter plane is unimaginable in a Pixar film.
“The Wind Rises” was released in Japan in July 2013 and went over the $100-million mark in that country’s box office. Following its debut at the Venice Film Festival this fall, Disney is opening the film for Oscar consideration November 8 in Los Angeles and New York.
Disney will release a dubbed English-language version next February. The film under review here is the Japanese-language version. So I won’t comment on the voice cast since most English speakers will never see this version.
The film’s hero, Jiro, is a dreamer. The early days of aviation have captured his fancy. In his sleep he accompanies the legendary Italian aeronautical designer, Giovanni Caproni, on flights over the verdant Japanese landscape, dodging white clouds in amazing planes and air buses not yet invented.
“Airplane are beautiful dreams,” Caproni tells him. So Jiro’s goals in life are set: He will forever dream of the perfectly designed air machine.
Jiro’s Japan is a land of poverty, earthquakes, repression and disease. Now a star engineer with an aviation company, he makes a great friend in his colleague Honjo and meets the beautiful, ill-fated Nahoko.
War hangs over the horizon. Jiro is sent to Germany to meet with Hitler’s aviation designers. When he returns home, police come looking for him. Why? You never find out.
His romance with Nahoko, a victim of the tuberculosis epidemic, then takes center stage. They meet first in an earthquake and later at a remote sanitarium compared to Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain.”
As storm clouds gather, the question arises: How will Japan survive? Throughout the film, its characters frequently quote a line from a Paul Valéry poem: “The wind is rising. We must try to live.”
The film with its editing, camera angles and time jumps resembles a live-action film. Nothing is really cartoony except for various belligerent officials and bureaucrats in meeting rooms. It’s not entirely realistic either; you’re always aware you’re looking at animation.
The old-school backgrounds are subtle, tranquil landscapes for the countryside and simple clean lines for urban areas. Such settings do have a “backlot” look, so to speak, but maintain an Asian flavor.
Dream sequences offer more flowing and pleasing terrains with our man Caproni as its guide. He is Zeus and godfather to Jiro, prodding, inspiring and cautioning the hero in equal measure in this timeless realm. (Italianate music accompanies his appearances.)
History weaves into the scenario, with incidents known to Japanese audiences but probably unfamiliar to all others such as the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 (a riveting sequences where imagination meets the forces of nature).
While on this subject, the film’s hero, Jiro, combines two actual people in this era, a young engineer, Jiro Horikoshi, and poet/author Tatsuo Hori, who wrote a novel of the same name. The Jiro’s story is also interwoven with the creation of the later-mythicized Zero fighter plane that launched the Pacific War against the U.S.
The latter is a key element of “The Wind Rises.” The development of the Mitsubishi A6M1, later to become the Navy Type 0 Carrier Fighter, triggers the film’s meditation on that era’s war culture in Japan.
It is the film’s obvious but not overstated irony that its engineer-hero’s beautiful dream turns into a machine of war on behalf of fascism.
Which is not to say the viewpoint is cynical as are the immortal lines from Tom Lehrer’s song concerning the German-then-American rocket scientist for sale, Wernher Von Braun: “‘Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department,’ says Wernher Von Braun.” Rather the dream machine that becomes a killing one is a perplexing dilemma for the film’s hero, full of pathos and regret.
It is this melancholy development that floods “The Wind Rises” with its air of desire and despair. In the end, Jiro loses everything. The film leaves him in a ruined Japan. Caproni then pays a final visit in Jiro’s dreams, demanding that he too must live no matter what.
Miyazaki has declared that “The Wind Rises” is his last film. Let’s hope not. But if so, he has left a dazzling legacy through Studio Ghibli, which he co-founded in 1985, with such animated films as “Spirited Away” (2001), which won an Oscar, “Howl’s Moving Castle” (2004) and “Ponyo” (2008).
Opens: November 8, 2013 (Walt Disney Studios)
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/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
PG-13 rating, 126 minutes