The 73-year-old Japanese animation titan Hayao Miyazaki says The Wind Rises is his final film, and if that's true — and I hope it's not but fear it is, since he's not the type to make rash declarations — he's going out on a high.
The movie won't, I'm afraid, appeal to kids the way Ponyo or Spirited Away does. It's monster-, ghost- and mermaid-free. It centers on grown-ups and is gently paced — maybe 15 minutes too long, I'd say, but you can forgive those longueurs when the work is this exquisite. It's romantic, tragic and inexorably strange, a portrait of a young Japanese man who dreams of creating flying machines and the Imperial Empire that funds his research. His country will take those machines and send them off to rain death and destruction on its enemies — but that's not something to which the young designer gives too much thought. It's not part of the dream of flight.
The young man's name is Jiro, a composite of engineer Jiro Horikoshi and writer Tatsuo Hori, who wrote a novel called, also, The Wind Rises. From an early age, Jiro pores over drawings in English-language aeronautical magazines and communes in his fantasies with a visionary Italian aircraft designer called Caproni. There's only a whisper of distinction between Jiro's so-called reality and his dreams. In his visions, the young enthusiast — voiced in Disney's English-language version by Joseph Gordon-Levitt — stands on the wing of a plane under pink and gold cumulus clouds. Caproni, voiced by Stanley Tucci, is there, too, and they gaze in awe at an approaching flying machine.
The machine spoken of by Jiro and his Obi-Wan Caproni looks like a mechanically enhanced bird — there's barely any border between objects that are natural and engineered. Jiro's chief design is inspired by the curve of a mackerel bone; he takes his cues from living creatures. Miyazaki has given us living machines before, among them the mythical bus in My Neighbor Totoro, but here they're a mix of inorganic and organic. Everything has a spirit: levers, flaps and, of course, the wind.
The title comes from a line by poet Paul Valéry: "The wind is rising, we must try to live." It's the Buddhist carpe diem — go with the flow. The wind carries off the parasol of a fragile girl, Nahoko, voiced by Emily Blunt, into the hands of Jiro — who'll fall in love with her. Their love is idealized, but what an ideal. Though she's obviously dying of TB, she's plucky. She faces into the wind.
The movie's central contradiction is between the purity of Jiro's dreams and the deadly uses to which his plane — the legendary Zero fighter — is put. Does Miyazaki downplay the evil? Some critics say yes. One even stopped an awards meeting of a Boston critics society to say that anyone who voted for the movie was accepting the whitewash of atrocities. I don't see it that way. Miyazaki's irony isn't as broad as, say, Bertolt Brecht's in Galileo, the tragedy of a man whose appetite for science and lack of regard for its consequences lead inevitably — in Brecht's formulation — to weapons of mass destruction. But it's hard to imagine Miyazaki being that on-the-nose. The terrible implications are there, but underplayed.
It's the underplaying and the evenness of tone that are the key to his greatness, the way he transforms mundane sensations from real to surreal in barely perceptible puffs. And he puts so much individuality and soul into these anime characters with their standard button eyes and tiny noses that it's uncanny. He makes the human spirit seem as fleeting, yet as eternal as the wind itself.