Flying High

Hayao Miyazaki's last film might just be his best

In director Hayao Miyazaki's enchanting and somber The Wind Rises, Jiro (a character based on one of the designers of WWII Japanese fighter planes) shares his dreams with Caproni, an Italian airplane builder who intends to retire.

As it turns out, The Wind Rises is allegedly the last animated feature from Miyazaki, the legendary animation director of such films as Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle and Ponyo. Like the grandiose Caproni, the builder of airplane dreams in his latest feature, the 73-year-old Miyazaki plans to call it a day.

If this is indeed his final film, he's going out on a high note. The film is Oscar-nominated for Best Animated Feature, and it's my pick for the award.

The Wind Rises stands as my favorite of all the Miyazaki films. There's a hand-drawn beauty to every frame and the sounds of this film are astonishing. Most important, it tells a compelling and heartbreaking story in a graceful and touching way.

We first meet Jiro as a young boy, dreaming about airplanes (this is also where we see Caproni, who sometimes "shares" Jiro's dreams). Jiro's early dreams contain the beauty and wonderment of flying, but they also contain his plane disintegrating and his body falling helplessly towards the ground. Jiro is a complicated sort.

The film then jumps to Jiro as a young man, heading for work in Tokyo on a train when a frightening earthquake hits. The earthquake is the film's most stunning sequence, bolstered by exaggerated drawings of the earth rolling. It's also here that we see Miyazaki's extraordinary attention to detail (The earthquake's end is shown via a pile of small rocks, with the natural disaster coming to a pause after a couple of final, tiny stones tumble).

Jiro helps a young woman and her younger sister, Nahoko, in the aftermath. They lose touch as Jiro goes to work under the tutelage of the cantankerous Kurokawa, designing wing struts for a Japanese corporation building warplanes. Jiro notices details in the bones from his mackerel lunch, and incorporates their sleekness into his designs. Through a series of dreams, paper airplanes and hard work, we eventually see the culmination of Jiro's work: the planes that will attack Pearl Harbor and turn Japan into one of the world's most sinister war machines.

Miyazaki doesn't explore the politics of such an invention too much. There are some rough dealings with German engineers, and brief mentions of Nazis and how Japan will eventually "blow itself up." That particular statement is eerie in a film that is so beautiful. We see the creation of the planes from the designer's standpoint, as Jiro is almost the Walter Mitty of airplane daydreamers. He simply wants to build majestic flying machines, with no political leanings toward their wartime significance.

A love story kicks into gear when Nahoko is reintroduced. Jiro and she come together and are married as Nahoko is in the throes of tuberculosis. As with his airplane dreams, his dreams of eternal love are hindered by the distinct hint of death.

The dream sequences with Caproni are the product of full-blown Miyazaki wonderment. He and Jiro can walk on plane wings and observe huge passenger plane prototypes that look like Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose. They are the sort of beguiling sequences that distinguish Miyazaki's work from all others.

Miyazaki integrates human voices in a lot of his sound effects. You can hear them a bit when plane engines start up, and it lends to the film's organic feel. Those human voices work best when Tokyo catches fire during the earthquake sequences. The Earth belches and moans as the fire starts, almost as if to say "What's about to happen here is really quite bad." It's the sort of subtle touch that is strictly Miyazaki's.

We see those subtle touches in the visuals as well. The way cigarette smoke billows from a smoker's mouth, or the way vegetation reacts to hard raindrops. There's a sense in watching this film that everything we are seeing is being treated with an amazing amount of focus and detail. I quite often love Pixar and Disney computer-animated movies, but they are missing the humanistic quality of a Miyazaki film.

When I watched The Wind Rises, I saw it with its original Japanese-language track (with a little bit of German, Italian and French mixed in). The print being released nationally has an English-dubbed track featuring the voices of Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Jiro), Emily Blunt (Nahoko), Martin Short (Kurokawa) and Stanley Tucci (Caproni). English translations usually do OK in Miyazaki movies, but you can expect an original Japanese-language version on home video releases.

I can see why, thematically, Miyazaki would want this to be his last animated feature. The Wind Rises just might be the culmination of his work, with a final moment so fitting for the end of an amazing career.

The selfish movie-hungry fan in me wants him to keep making movies as long as he breathes, but there's something befitting and satisfying in the way this movie, and possibly Miyazaki's film journey, comes to an end.

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