They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but few could justifiably question the beauty of a Hayao Miyazaki film. A revered master of animation, the Oscar-winning director/writer makes something as simple as a hazy sky so ravishing, it can take your breath away.
Miyazaki's latest film, "The Wind Rises," nominated for the animated feature Oscar, happens to take that concept of the subjectivity of beauty and address it in a way that's touching, troubling, and above all, totally unique. If this is indeed Miyazaki's swan song -- he's announced his retirement, but not everyone believes it -- then it's a worthy one, if perhaps not his most satisfying work, and certainly not his simplest.
What IS beauty? Jiro, whom we first meet as a country boy in Japan, finds beauty in the design of an airplane. He yearns to be a pilot, but is nearsighted. In a dream, he encounters the famous Italian aeronautical engineer Giovanni Caproni, who tells him not to worry -- it's even better to build planes than to fly them.
Caproni is not a fictional character -- and neither is Jiro. The film is based on Jiro Horikoshi, the engineer who designed the Zero fighter plane used in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in World War II. That's where the film gets complicated. Some have asked why Miyazaki would focus on a man whose creation was ultimately used to kill so many.
One could also see the film as a pacifist statement -- showing how a thing of beauty was turned into a killing machine. But Miyazaki has said he didn't mean to be political, wanting simply to portray the story of someone who pursued his huge dream with talent and drive.
The film, produced by Miyazaki's acclaimed Studio Ghibli, presents Jiro (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the English-language version, leading an all-star cast) as a gentle soul. Heading to Tokyo to begin studies in engineering, he encounters a pretty girl on the train. She shares his knowledge of a French poem, and the line: "The wind is rising, we must try to live."
They forge a connection, and then their train is caught up in a catastrophe -- the Great Kanto Earthquake that rocked Japan in 1923. (Miyazaki is at his very best in depicting this natural devastation.) Jiro helps the girl make it home.
After university, Jiro is hired by Mitsubishi to design planes (his bosses are voiced by Martin Short and Mandy Patinkin, and even Ronan Farrow has a small role as an employee.) He and his friend, Honjo (John Krasinski) travel to Germany to study what engineers are doing there. The two have long talks about the state of their country. Here, the film's pacing sags somewhat.
Back in Japan, at a hotel in the mountains, Jiro again encounters the girl he met on the train. (This entire relationship is fictional). The two fall in love; the scenes of Jiro wooing Nahoko (Emily Blunt) by sending a paper plane to her balcony inject a welcome dose of charm and whimsy. Of course, the depiction of nature is exquisite -- bright blue skies, purple haze, and green fields that resemble an Impressionist painting.
Nahoko, though, is suffering from tuberculosis, and their love story will be a sad one. Also sad, and clearly an important part of the story, is how Jiro's passion for his work will take him away from his doomed lover for many hours, even when she most needs him. (One oddity: there's a lot of smoking here, and it's particularly jarring when Jiro smokes in a bedroom with the very ill Nahoko.)
The ending doesn't shy away from the results of Jiro's passionate design efforts. "Not a single one returned," he says in a mournful dream sequence at the end to Caproni (Stanley Tucci.)
All he wanted, Jiro ruminates in this film, was to create something beautiful. Which is, at least, a feat that director Miyazaki has achieved. Once again.
"The Wind Rises," a Walt Disney Studios release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America "for some disturbing images and smoking." Running time: 126 minutes. Three stars out of four.