Japanese animated films, known as anime, have a long honorable tradition. But the acknowledged master of this craft is Hayao Miyazaki, whose animated films often have a child like quality with his distinctive technique. Even at 63 his oeuvre isn't large, but includes such gems as Princess Mononoke (1997), Whale Hunt (2001), Spirited Away (2003), Ponyo (2009), and From Up on Poppy Hill (2010). All of his major films have won significant awards, and Princess Mononoke was the most successful Japanese film ever, winning an Oscar for best animated film. Major American animators have all acknowledged their debt to Miyazaki. Despite Miyazaki's great talent, it is hard to imagine that a brilliant (in every sense) animated film, The Wind Rises, could be made about the life of Jiro Horikoshi, an aeronautical engineer who was the designer of the Zero, Japan's principal fighter aircraft during WW II.
Horikoshi had an unremarkable childhood but from an early age was fascinated by airplanes. He was near sighted so could never be a pilot. Instead he decided to become an aeronautical engineer. He experienced the devastating 1923 Tokyo earthquake, which is dramatically portrayed in the film, graduated from engineering school, and went to work for Mitsubishi. Japan was beginning to emerge from a third rate power and began to aggressively militarize as the military became politically influential. Japan was intent on dominating South and East Asia. After occupying Korea (and brutally suppressing Korean culture) in 1910, Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931, quit the League of Nations, and finally invaded mainland China in 1937, which set the stage for the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Horikoshi had a long distinguished career, dying in 1982. Horikoshi said that all he wanted to do was to design beautiful things. And he did, but lived to see the ultimate cost of Japan's militarism. But that those aircraft might be used in the service of evil is not dealt with in the film. The Zero, produced by the thousands, was Japan's most successful fighter, used in the attack on Pearl Harbor, throughout the war, and finally at the end, as kamikazes.
Miyazaki's technique is very labor intensive. Each of the cells is drawn by hand and colored, then digitized. The amount of labor is part of the reason for Miyazaki's relatively small output. But the process gives his film his signature look, with every frame looking like a watercolor. Each is gorgeous with great attention to detail. The backgrounds are slightly less prominent (but always beautifully rendered) than the characters as they move through the scene. He also often uses bird's eye views of events, such as passengers leaving a stalled train, which become lyric views. Many of his scenes are informative commentaries on Japanese cultural life in the 1920's and 30's, such as the gradual shift in women's' garments from kimonos in public to western dress. And we see a wonderful cross section of demographics, from drunks, to traditional workmen, to factory workers, soldiers, and more. To see this film is to see the real Japan of that era, including the impact of the depression of the 1930's. There is a mysterious German who Jiro meets at a country hotel. Becoming friendly, the man warns Jiro that Japan is headed in the wrong direction, and only disaster will ensue. The German's prophecy of course is true, and there is a brief haunting scene near the end: contrails high overhead above a burning city. But Jiro can only see aircraft as a thing of beauty.
A recurring theme throughout the film is the sense of technological inferiority that many Japanese felt in comparison with Western industrial powers. An example is the ironic depiction of a team of oxen hauling the huge cart containing a plane that is being transferred to an airfield for its first flight. The old towing the new. Miyazaki's depictions of early Japanese aircraft seem quite accurate, as well as Japan's efforts to use German technology. Dreams become an important part of the story. Jiro dreams of flying, and often has dreams that he shares with Count Caproni, a real Italian aircraft designer that Jiro admires. They sometimes argue over whose dream this is, but are kindred spirits. Caproni repeatedly advises Jiro that "The wind is rising, we must try to live", quoting a French poet. He urges Jiro to live his dreams and make great aircraft. But Caproni also says that these dreams are cursed: aircraft will be used for death and destruction, rather than in civilian roles.
Miyazaki's pacing is very unlike the usual fast paced animated films. Although never slow, it is not frantic and we sense the passage of time as his life unfolds. The Wind Rises is one of the most beautiful films I have seen in some time. The visuals will enchant children (and adults) but the story of Jiro's life is very adult, set against a dark period. But this is not a downer film in any sense and you don't need an interest in fighter aircraft to appreciate it. It is powerful and poignant, again in a way that most animated films are not. The sound track is lovely; a mixture of Western and Japanese instruments. I was so taken by this film that I saw it a second time, and of course saw things that I missed the first time. Miyazaki has made a masterpiece. It was one of the Oscar contenders for best feature length animated film and should have won. Playing widely, at both the Embarcadero and the Kabuki, the Century (San Rafael), the Grand Lake (Oakland), and many theaters on the Peninsula and South Bay. Running time: 126 minutes. Some theaters are screening both the dubbed and the subtitled versions. The subtitled version seemed more authentic because you hear spoken Japanese. There is not a great deal of dialogue so easy even for those who are adverse to subtitles. But see it on the big screen! Ciao, Ian