When I interviewed Hayao Miyazaki 13 years ago, just before the release of the Oscar-winning “Spirited Away,” he said his main goal as a writer-director was to prove that any story – no matter how complex or thought-provoking – could be told through animation.
He has proved his point with “The Wind Rises,” an Oscar-nominated capstone to his 35-year career as the greatest Japanese animator. (Or, if you listen to Pixar boss John Lassiter, the greatest living animator.)
The film is visually sumptuous, morally ambiguous, dramatic and dreamlike, with a narrative as engrossing as any live-action movie of 2013. It’s easy to follow yet hard to shake.
Some detractors claim this biography of an airplane designer working in the 1930s glorifies Japanese militarism. It doesn’t. It acknowledges that the build-up to war gave Japan, reeling from economic depression and the Kanto earthquake, something to pull the nation out of misery.
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But it takes a longer view of the work of Jiro Horikoshi, who designed the Zeros used by kamikaze fighters. The fictional Jiro begins and ends as a visionary, captivated by the beauty of flight and a desire to improve air travel. He has no illusions that his government will use his plans for anything but war machines, but he looks beyond the present to a time when his designs will carry passengers more safely and swiftly.
We spend much of the movie literally inside his dreams, where he meets older Italian engineer Giovanni Caproni. When Jiro expresses anxiety about the future of aviation, Caproni asks, “Do you want pyramids?” The implication is clear: Without short-term suffering, like the deaths of slaves who built Egypt’s monuments, long-term glories may not be possible. (I base these comments on the subtitled Japanese version; I haven’t seen the one dubbed into English, which Charlotte is getting.)
Miyazaki does criticize the Japan that attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, the year he was born. (His father ran Miyazaki Airplane, which made Zero parts.)
Characters bring up the unjustified invasion of Manchuria, the thought police who persecute citizens, the military planning a war it cannot win. A prophetic German pacifist warns that a war will “blow up” Germany and Japan: Pilots in Jiro’s sleek, elegant Zeros will never fly anything else.
The screenplay lightens the drama with a sweet romance between Jiro and Nahoko, a young woman he meets on the day of the terrible earthquake and encounters about a decade later. He woos her with a paper airplane that darts and dips like a bird; even his expressions of love take flight.
The director uses an extraordinary color palette, from deep reds to velvety purples. As befits a nation in turmoil, characters hop on buses, boats, ships, trains, bicycles, even ox-carts: Jiro’s world is always in motion. Yet the movie itself doesn’t hurry; it never drags, but it’s meditative.
Almost every scene has a hint of wind, as a symbol of buoyancy or turbulence; it ruffles awnings, musses hair on a beautiful summer day or roars across the land ahead of the churning earthquake. The title comes from “Le Cimitière Marin,” by French symbolist poet Paul Valéry. In 1922, he wrote “The wind is rising; we must try to live.”
In that book, Valéry also said, “In the eyes of lovers of perfection, a work is never finished – a word that for them has no sense – but abandoned.” Maybe that explains why Miyazaki has directed just one other feature (“Ponyo”) since 2004.
He turned 73 last month and says he’ll make no more movies. Miyazaki has come out of retirement before. But if he does stop now, he ends on a masterpiece.