Japanese animation legend Hayao Miyazaki’s latest — and he, at 73, says it is his last — film, “The Wind Rises,” is a gorgeous epic whose beauty cannot hide the tragedies, great and small, at the heart of its story.
The story is that of Jiro Horikoshi, the Japanese aeronautical engineer who designed the Mitsubishi Zero, the fighter plane that was used to attack Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and bring the United States into World War II.
As depicted in Miyazaki’s fictionalized script, Horikoshi (voiced in the English-language version by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is an idealist fascinated by flight. “I just want to make beautiful airplanes,” he says frequently, though he’s not so naive that he doesn’t see that his corporate backers and the Japanese military want to use his beautiful airplanes to make horrific war.
Even as a boy, Jiro dreams about airplanes, and in his dreams he meets his idol, the Italian aeronautical pioneer Count Caproni (voiced by Stanley Tucci). Miyazaki delights in animating Caproni’s fantastical designs, such as a luxury liner held aloft by three sets of triple-tiered wings. He matches the hand-drawn animation with engine noises and other aural effects — including the sounds of the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake that devastated much of Tokyo — reproduced by human actors.
Jiro arrives in Tokyo for college just as the quake hits, and in four years he and his best friend, Honjo (voiced by John Krasinski), are new designers at Mitsubishi. Honjo laments that Japanese technology is 20 years behind the West — and one way they close the gap is to study with engineers in Germany, where they also witness the gathering storm of the Nazis.
But Jiro’s life isn’t only devoted to airplanes. On a vacation at a spa resort, he meets Nahoko (voiced by Emily Blunt) — or, rather, remeets her, as he helped her in the aftermath of the ’23 quake. Their tender romance is tinged with sorrow, because Nahoko is suffering from tuberculosis.
Thus the twin tragedies in Jiro’s life play out: the fragile health of his beloved and the pressure to finish a carrier-based plane for the Japanese Navy (and a predecessor of the Zero) — with the knowledge that his planes will be used ultimately to kill. (Needless to say, small children familiar with Miyazaki’s “Ponyo” or “My Neighbor Totoro” are not the recommended audience for this movie.)
Miyazaki has been criticized for devoting a movie to a man responsible for such a deadly war machine. The filmmaker labels himself a pacifist, and some of his greatest films, such as “Princess Mononoke” and “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind,” back up that sentiment. Here, he doesn’t belabor the moral issues behind Jiro’s creation of military planes, but neither does he sweep those issues under the rug.
What emerges from “The Wind Rises” is a richly told tale of deep sadness, as Jiro realizes that the two things he loves most in the world — Nahoko and his airplanes — will come to tragic ends. But, in both, he remains hopeful, recalling the words of poet Paul Valéry (a quote Miyazaki uses to open the film): “The wind is rising! We must try to live!”
‘The Wind Rises’
Hayao Miyazaki’s final film is a moving, beautiful tale of Japan’s most talented airplane designer and the lethal machines he built.
Where • Area theaters.
When • Opens today.
Rating • PG-13 for some disturbing images and smoking.
Running time • 126 minutes.