The Wind Rises was a dream project for the great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, and this gorgeous film makes a fine capstone for his career.
But even though it has fanciful dream sequences and some of the most lovely hand-drawn imagery of the Emperor of Anime's career, the subject matter and his treatment of it are a puzzlement. The movie, nominated for best animated feature at Sunday's Oscars, is basically a biopic about Jiro Horikoshi, who designed planes for the Japanese military before and during World War II.
And Miyazaki — famed for Ponyo and My Neighbor Totoro and a whole genre of animation that spun out of his Studio Ghibli — chose to tell the story from such a distinct point of view that it has little appeal outside of Japan.
We meet young Jiro as a student who takes flights of fancy in his sleep, visiting his favorite Italian airplane designer, Giovanni Caproni (voiced by Stanley Tucci).
Jiro (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) pursues his dream to become an engineer and design aircraft. He lives through the great Kanto earthquake of 1923, stunningly re-created, and the militarism that came to dominate Japan in the days and years after it.
With his pal Honjo (John Krasinski), Jiro starts designing planes for an unidentified company (Mitsubishi). Since the military is doing all the buying, that means they're designing fighter planes and bombers. Thus begin Miyazaki's strained efforts to view WWII in that arm's-length way official Japan has long treated it.
Jiro and Honjo travel to Germany to study the Junkers way of building warplanes — but we never see a swastika or Teutonic Cross. A German tourist (voiced by great German director Werner Herzog) warns Jiro of the doomed path Germany and Japan are taking. But Miyazaki skips past almost all of the unpleasantness.
The planes depicted here are lovely things, from the impractical dream craft of Caproni to the various successes and failures of Mitsubishi. Their deadly use? Let's not think about that — rather like celebrating the life of the fellow who invented the AK-47 without mentioning the butcher's bill.
The sentimentalist in Miyazaki lovingly re-creates a Japan he has his engineer characters criticize as "backward" — the steam trains, "penny ferries" and gorgeous (and flammable) wooden architecture that dominated the country between the world wars.
A love story comes to dominate this highly fictionalized version of Jiro's life, as he falls for a woman (Emily Blunt does her voice) whose health is the stuff operas and soap operas are made of. Touching, but it makes the movie drag.
Martin Short provides comic relief as a blustering boss. Krasinski and Tucci are well-cast for roles that demanded a lighter touch.
As any fan of the History channel and its clones can verify, there's nothing wrong with celebrating a triumph of engineering and thing of beauty like the Zero. But not addressing the way it was used reminds us that Japan still dreams of denial, as far as World War II is concerned.