VENICE – Is it a bird? Is it a plane? At several points in Hayao Miyazaki’s frequently dazzling new feature “The Wind Rises,” the answer might as well be both. Studio Ghibli devotees could be forgiven for scratching their heads a little when the news broke that the Oscar-winning animator — hitherto a merchant of extravagant, culture-fusing fantasy — was set to make a biopic of influential Japanese aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi. Engineering biography, however sexy a genre on its own terms, isn’t known for its abundance of flying eel-dragons or midnight cat-buses.
So it seems both a reassuring assertion of identity and an audacious imposition when Miyazaki finds room almost straight away in “The Wind Rises” for extended — forgive me — flights of fancy: dream sequences in which some airplanes seem to distort and grow plumage, gliding (and falling) through the atmosphere with scarcely more human agency than the eerily self-propelled steel creatures of Disney’s “Planes.” Speaking of which, if we only needed one animated ode to the thrills of aviation on our screens this year — and we do — this is certainly it.
The dreamer of these visions is the young Jiro, a frail, four-eyed nipper growing up in rural Japan between the World Wars, whose ambitions of becoming a pilot are thwarted by his own extreme myopia. He directs his passion instead into precocious research on the subject, poring over English-language magazines on aircraft design to such an extent that his slumbering subconscious has no choice but to follow suit. Lushly moustachioed and spouting a steady stream of lyric wisdom, Italian aeronautics innovator Giovanni Caproni becomes a regular presence in Jiro’s sleep.
“The wind is rising! We must try to live,” he exhorts, via the words of poet Paul Valery, as the youngster dreams images of Caproni’s greatest professional follies — most vividly, a three-storey biplane that itself seems something of a Ghibli creation — that he accepts as motivating rather than cautionary.
Yes, “The Wind Rises” is a non-fantastical fantasy, and the rare Ghibli film in which the most arresting imagery has some basis in reality. It’s not the first time the spirit of Caproni has entered the studio’s canon: “Porco Rosso,” their 1992 pigs-might-fly adventure, featured an aviation company plainly inspired by Caproni’s own. The recycling of such reference points suggests we may be watching a veiled history of Miyazaki’s own creative development as much as Horikoshi’s.
“Artists are only creative for 10 years,” Caproni cosmically advises Jiro as he grows up, studies engineering in Tokyo and swiftly establishes himself as the boy wonder of the Japanese aviation industry — creating ever more streamlined and combat-ready plane designs for Mitsubishi, while his pacifist conscience wrestles with the destructive real-world application of his gifts. It’s a mantra repeated often enough that one has to wonder if Miyazaki, whose brilliant career dates back considerably farther than 10 years, means anything personal by its inclusion. Is “The Wind Rises” a spirited gesture of continued defiance, or a belated sign-off?
Either way, it’s a work that shows Miyazaki as an artist not just at the very apex of his own creativity, but of the entire animated form. No one in animation — whether hand-drawn, computer-generated or a sleek fusion of the two — is creating canvases quite this epically fluid and color-saturated, yet still alive with witty individual flourishes. Miyazaki’s films are utterly distinguishable from those of other directors in the Ghibli stable, with this one more distinct still. It’s as if working in a mode of (relative) narrative realism has necessitated his most florid vision yet. From the rich plum of a woman’s signature hat to the sparkling spring green of the grass that — interestingly for a story with its head in the clouds — seems to fill the screen more expansively than the sky, even the simplest aesthetic choices here inspire sharp intakes of breath.
Tragedy is even an occasion for beauty in this film, where the shattering Tokyo earthquake of 1923 proves a formative event in Jiro’s own life. Miyazaki realizes the disaster with jolting visual specificity, shaking and compressing exquisitely drawn landscapes like a carpet being shaken out from under, and illustrating the subsequent environmental carnage with piercing streaks of magenta flame amid the roiling gray. If it seems hardly appropriate for a sequence this devastating to be this purely beautiful, the earthquake is also a key initiating event in the film’s late-blooming love story: it’s here where Jiro meets his future wife Nahoko, then a mere child.
Nahoko and Jiro meet again in the 1930s at a countryside retreat, setting in motion the film’s most satisfying stretch of sustained visual storytelling: an exquisite seduction sequence involving paper planes and wind-buffeted umbrellas has all the swoony, wordless grace of a Gene Kelly ballet. But the bliss doesn’t, and indeed cannot, last: not with WWII looming ahead, its extent and gravity unknown to them and all too known to us, and not with Nahoko placing her own finite terms on the relationship.
It’s as a stylized romance, its heartbeats subtly reflected in Miyazaki’s vivid atmospheric detail, that the film works most rewardingly as an emotional experience. As a one-man biopic, however, its earnestly traditional storytelling can seem dry, even a little turgid, against the film’s more innovative sensory properties. (Structurally, this isn’t a million miles from the noble, profession-oriented biopics than studios cranked out in the 1940s, often for leading men as dour as Walter Pidgeon.)
At over two hours, there’s perhaps a smidge more nitty-gritty aeronautical detail than I strictly needed to feel enraptured — and, by a mordant ending that requires the viewer to fill in a few historical blanks, suitably intimidated — by the miracle of flight. In this ravishing passion project from an artist still in full autumnal leaf, planes are as hearts are as hats: all starships, meant to touch the sky.