Here's a beautiful apparent contradiction: a gentle, supple picture about the man who designed the Zero fighter plane.
"The Wind Rises" is being marketed as the "farewell masterpiece" of Japanese writer-director Hayao Miyazaki, who brought the world "Spirited Away," "Howl's Moving Castle" and "Ponyo," as well as oversaw and contributed to "From Up on Poppy Hill" most recently. There's a fascinating push/pull in Miyazaki's latest. The film's portrait of engineer Jiro Horikoshi — his early dreams of flight and his success in designing for the Mitsubishi engine company in the run-up to World War II — links the protagonist to the fictional dreamers and strivers and poets of the filmmaker's earlier work.
If this is indeed Miyazaki's farewell, it's a fine one. "The Wind Rises" makes no apologies for what the Zero wrought, like any other war machine, churned out by any other country's factories. Rather, it makes the dream of flight itself a vehicle for bittersweet enchantment.
Certain scenes in "The Wind Rises" reaffirm Miyazaki's brilliance, and I don't use the b-word lightly. When young Jiro, traveling by train, becomes a witness to the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, the film's startling depiction of the earthquake is just serious enough to carry weight, yet unexpected enough to carry a touch of the supernatural. The sound the ground makes as it bucks and heaves is like an ancient dragon awakening.
Throughout the film Jiro communes in dreams with his hero, Italian aircraft designer Gianni Caproni. In his waking life, meantime, Jiro's romance with the tubercular love of his life, Nahoko, takes up much of the story, as does Jiro's collegial friendship with his fellow engineer, Honjo. "Who are we planning to bomb with this thing?" one man says to the other, when the pair is sent by their employer to Germany (this is between the wars) to study design. "America, probably," comes the reply. "Not that they could."
Visions of bombed cities in flames emerge naturally out of the action in "The Wind Rises," not in a documentary fashion but in Jiro's mind as he copes with premonitions of things to come. He knows what his creations will be used for in wartime. Caproni advises him at one point: "Artists are only creative for 10 years ... we engineers are no different. Live your 10 years to the full." Miyazaki knows full well it's possible to sustain a varied creative life longer than a decade. But "The Wind Rises," haunted in its glancing way by man's inhumanity to man, believes in beauty and puts that belief into practice, without guile.
I saw the Japanese-language version; most U.S. theaters showing "The Wind Rises" will be presenting the English-dubbed edition featuring the voices of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Stanley Tucci and many more. I hope "The Wind Rises" turns out to be one of those false farewells a major artist makes, before re-entering the creative arena once again. But if Miyazaki never makes another picture, he will have left behind a lifetime of handmade beauty.
"The Wind Rises'' - 3 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some disturbing images and smoking)
Running time: 2:06
Opens: FridayCopyright © 2015, RedEye