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27 Feb 2014

What a Finale: Hayao Miyazaki's Possible Final Film Is an Instant Classic

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A scene from The Wind Rises. A scene from The Wind Rises.

In director Hayao Miyazaki’s enchanting and somber The Wind Rises, Jiro (a character based on one of the designers of World War II Japanese bombers) shares his dreams with Caproni, an Italian airplane-builder who intends to retire.

Caproni has something in common with Miyzaki: The Wind Rises is allegedly the last animated feature from Miyazaki, the legendary director of such films as Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo. If this is, indeed, his final film, Miyazaki, 73, is going out on a high note: The film is nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar, and it’s my pick for the award.

The Wind Rises stands as my favorite Miyazaki film. There’s a hand-drawn beauty to every frame; the sounds are astonishing; and, most importantly, it tells a compelling and heartbreaking story in a graceful and touching way.

We first meet Jiro as a young boy, as he dreams about airplanes. (This is also where we meet Caproni, who sometimes “shares” Jiro’s dreams.) Jiro’s early dreams contain the beauty and wonderment of flying—but they also include his plane disintegrating, and his body falling helplessly toward the ground. Jiro is a complicated sort.

The film then jumps to Jiro as a young man, heading to work in Tokyo on a train, when a frightening earthquake hits. This 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 accident’s aftermath. They lose touch as Jiro goes to work under the tutelage of the cantankerous Kurokawa; he designs wing struts for a Japanese corporation that’s 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 bombers 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 all that 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 very eerie in a film that is so beautiful. We see the creation of the bombers from the designer’s standpoint; Jiro is the Walter Mitty of airplane daydreamers, in a sense. 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. She and Jiro 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 full of wonderment. He and Jiro can walk on plane wings and observe huge passenger-plane prototypes that look like the Howard Hughes Spruce Goose. These beguiling sequences distinguish Miyazaki’s work from all other animated-film directors.

Miyazaki integrates human voices in a lot of his sound effects. You can hear them a bit when plane engines start up; 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 a subtle, distinctive touch from Miyazaki.

We see those subtle touches in the visuals as well. Watch the way cigarette smoke billows from a smoker’s mouth, or the way vegetation reacts to hard raindrops. Everything is treated with an amazing amount of focus and detail. As amazing as Pixar’s computer-animated movies are, they miss the humanistic quality of a Miyazaki film.

I watched The Wind Rises with its original Japanese language track (with a little bit of German, Italian and French mixed in). The film is being released nationally with 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 go OK with Miyazaki movies, but if you want to see it in the original Japanese, it’ll probably be included on future home-video releases.

I could see why, thematically, Miyazaki would want this to be his last animated feature; The Wind Rises feels like a proper culmination of his work. The selfish movie fan in me wants him to keep making movies as long as he breathes, but there’s something quite befitting and satisfying in the way this movie, and possibly Miyazaki’s film journey, comes to an end.

The Wind Rises opens Friday, Feb. 28, at theaters including the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 760-770-1615) and the Cinemas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430).

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