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The Wind Rises

At this point, Hayao Miyazaki should need no introduction. He’s directed four anime series, nine short films, and ten feature films, some of which are widely regarded as classics in the genre. He co-founded one of the most prestigious animation companies on the planet, and used that as a platform to write and produce plenty of other great anime films. I won’t even get started on all the manga work he’s done.

And now, after fifty years in the business, Miyazaki has made the decision to retire. For now. He’s claimed to retire a few times in the past, most notably after Princess Mononoke was completed. It’s entirely possible that he may be a “Stephen King” kind of workaholic who simply can’t quit no matter how many times he threatens to. But from where I’m sitting, The Wind Rises feels an awful lot like a swan song.

The film is a fictionalized biopic of Jiro Horikoshi, an engineer in Japan who designed planes that would later be used in WWII. It was written and directed by Miyazaki, who just happened to grow up in WWII Japan as the son of a man who built warplanes. The very same Mitsubishi A6M Zero that Horikoshi famously designed, no less.

Anyway, the film’s Jiro (who, again, is only loosely based on the real-life Horikoshi) is a young man who comes of age during WWI. His dream is to build magnificent flying machines, but he wants to make pieces of art instead of war machines. Unfortunately, though Jiro is incredibly talented at what he does, the whole world seems to be working against him.

Japan’s economy is still struggling in the aftermath of the Great War, the populace is starving through so much poverty, and that’s not even getting started on the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 that pretty much leveled Tokyo. Japan is in such a bad spot that they’ve been set back about twenty years in terms of technology. This means that Jiro and his peers are still making planes out of wood and canvas long after the rest of the world has moved on to metal. To get out of the rut, the Japanese have to work with engineers in Germany, who are of course only interested in making warplanes as they prepare for world domination.

The plot begins with Jiro as a young boy and works toward the completion of his masterpiece just before WWII. But man oh man does the film drag its feet getting from Point A to Point B. The film is very slowly paced, taking all manner of digressions along the way. The film is two hours long, and I get the strong feeling that it could easily have been cut by at least fifteen minutes without losing anything of much value.

The animation is also a touch problematic. Of course the Studio Ghibli character designs and backdrops look fantastic, and the flight scenes are uniformly beautiful. Even when the planes crash (especially when the planes crash) it always looks gorgeous. However, for every shot that’s seamlessly animated, there’s a shot that looks as if every third frame is somehow missing.

Then we have the dream sequences. Jiro tends to daydream on a very frequent basis, and the film is loaded with some sequences that just drag the pace down. In fact, the film opens with a lengthy dream sequence that serves absolutely no purpose other than to provide redundant foreshadowing and slow down the plot before it even starts. That’s a serious pet peeve of mine.

So if the film is unevenly animated and poorly paced, with a rambling plot weighed down by excessive storylines and bloated dream sequences, is it a bad movie? Well, no, not really.

Take the daydreams, for example. Though some of them are redundant, most of them are used as a vivid way of getting into the main character’s head. When Jiro daydreams, we’re seeing the planes through his eyes and watching where his ideas come from. This is how he sees his job. It takes some getting used to, but the effect is remarkable when it works.

Also, though the pacing might drag its feet, at least the characters are never boring. Jiro makes for a very endearing protagonist, and all the other characters are quite charming and memorable in their own unique ways. Of course, a lot of credit for that must go to the American voice cast, which is uncharacteristically good for a latter-day Ghibli film. Jiro himself is voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt voices his main love interest, John Krasinski plays the sarcastic best friend, and various supporting roles are voiced by Mae Whitman, Martin Short, Stanley Tucci, William H. Macy, Jennifer Grey, Werner Herzog, and Mandy freaking Patinkin. Elijah Wood, Darren Criss, and Ronan Farrow also poke their heads in along the way. I haven’t seen this much effort put into a Ghibli dubbed voice cast since Howl’s Moving Castle, and the results are quite impressive.

As for the plot, well, of course it’s going to have pacing issues because that’s depressingly common with biopics that span several years. More importantly, the film behaves less like a tightly-structured narrative and more like a laundry list of Miyazaki’s favorite themes. At various times, the film shows firm pacifist beliefs, displays strong-willed female characters, explores the relationship between man and nature, meditates on love and mortality, shows heartfelt nostalgia for the past, takes us on extraordinary rides to show the transformative power of flight, and touches on so many other subjects that have already been made prominent in other Studio Ghibli films.

This is ultimately why the movie seems like Miyazaki’s final effort. It’s like the maestro pulled together everything he’s learned, everything he’s done, and everything he cares most about, then crafted a character to guide us all through it.

The Wind Rises doesn’t work as a conventional movie, but I get the strong sense that it was never really meant to. The whole film feels intensely personal, with raw passion oozing out of every frame. In other words, this is more like a work of art, made purely to express the feelings and emotions of its creator. That might sound masturbatory, but this is Hayao Miyazaki. He has a mind that’s well worth peering into. Plus, if anyone’s earned the right to take one last bow, it’s him.

I’d only add that if you think this is yet another kids’ film, DON’T. Though there’s absolutely no mature content of any kind to be found here, the slow pacing and heady thematic content will surely bore any children in the audience to tears. Let the kids go see The Lego Movie and leave this one to the adults.

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