"The Wind Rises" was a dream project for the great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, and this gorgeous film could make a fine capstone for his career.
But even though it has fanciful dream sequences and some of the most lovely hand-drawn imagery of the Emperor of Anime's career, the subject matter and his treatment of it are a puzzlement. It's basically a biopic about Jiro Horikoshi, who designed planes for the Japanese military before and during World War II.
This Jiro dreams of Zeros.
And Miyazaki -- famed for "Ponyo" and "My Neighbor Totoro" and a whole genre of animation that spun out of his Studio Ghibli -- chose to tell a story and tell it from such a distinct point of view that had he shot it with live actors, "Wind Rises" would have had zero appeal outside of Japan.
We meet young Jiro in a dream, a student who takes flights of fancy in his sleep, visiting his favorite Italian airplane designer, Giovanni Caproni (voiced by Stanley Tucci).
"Airplanes are not for making war," Caproni purrs to the kid he calls "Japanese Boy." "Airplanes are beautiful dreams."
Jiro (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) pursues his own dream, to become an engineer and design such aircraft. He lives through the great Kanto earthquake of 1923, stunningly re-created here, and the militarism that came to dominate Japan in the days and years after it. The heroic Jiro rescues an injured nanny and the little girl she cares for, with long-term romantic consequences.
And with his pal Honjo (John Krasinski), he starts designing planes for an unidentified company -- Mitsubishi. Since the military is doing all the buying, that means they're designing fighter planes and bombers.
Thus begin Miyazaki's strained efforts to view World War II in that arm's-length way official Japan has long treated it.
"We're not arms merchants," the engineers rationalize. "We just want to build good aircraft." That little matter of the war? That just sort of happened.
Jiro and Honjo travel to Germany to study the Junkers way of building warplanes -- but we never see a swastika or Teutonic Cross. A German tourist (voiced by the great German director Werner Herzog) warns Jiro of the doomed path both Germany and Japan are taking. And Miyazaki skips past almost all of the unpleasantness of WWII -- for instance, focusing on flawed bombers easily shot down rather than the innocent Chinese civilians they were bombing.
The planes depicted here are lovely things, from the impractical dream craft of Caproni to the various successes and failures of Mitsubishi. Their deadly use? Let's not think about that -- rather like celebrating the life of the fellow who invented the AK-47 without mentioning the butcher's bill.
But the sentimentalist in Miyazaki lovingly re-creates a Japan he has his engineer characters criticize as "backward" -- the steam trains, "penny ferries" and gorgeous (and flammable) wooden architecture that dominated the country in the years between the world wars. Oxen laboriously tow each prototype airplane to the airfield before its test flight.
A love story comes to dominate this highly fictionalized version of Jiro Horikoshi's life, as he falls for a young woman (Emily Blunt does her voice) whose health is the stuff of operas and soap operas. Touching, but it makes the movie drag.
Martin Short provides comic relief as a blustering boss. Krasinski and Tucci are well-cast for roles that demanded a lighter touch.
And as any fan of the History channel and its clones can verify, there's nothing wrong with celebrating a triumph of engineering and thing of beauty like the Zero. But not addressing the way it was used and the war the country started so that it could use it just reminds us that Japan still dreams of denial, as far as World War II is concerned.
'THe Wind Rises'
* * ½
Rating: PG-13 (for some disturbing images and smoking)
Cast: Voices of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, Martin Short, Werner Herzog, John Krasinski, Stanley Tucci
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Running time: 2 hours, 5