Jiro Horikoshi is a Studio Ghibli character Tony Stark would approve of. He was the engineer responsible for designing Imperial Japan’s Model Zero fighters, but he was a dreamer rather than an ideologue.
At least, that is how Hayao Miyazaki reimagined Horikoshi’s private persona in his fictionalized manga, which he has now adapted as his reported final film as a director.
Spanning decades of Japan’s tumultuous prewar history, it is also a deeply personal film that was justly nominated for best-animated feature. After brief festival appearances, Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises” opens this Friday in New York.
As a young student, Horikoshi yearns to fly, but he realizes his spectacles make it nearly impossible for him to become a pilot. Borrowing an aviation magazine from an encouraging teacher opens up a new path for the earnest lad.
Through its pages, he learns of Italian aircraft designer Gianni Caproni (voiced by Stanley Tucci), who becomes his inspiration. Setting his sights on an engineering career, Horikoshi regularly meets Caproni in his dreams and reveries, where they share their mutual passion for flight.
Circumstances of history will conspire to make Horikoshi’s life eventful. His first day as a university student is marked by the catastrophic earthquake of 1923, which will resonate profoundly with contemporary viewers mindful of Fukushima. Yet, out of that tragedy, Horikoshi meets and temporarily loses the great love of his life.
Despite his intelligence, Japan’s stagnant economy offers few opportunities for Horikoshi when he graduates. He joins Mitsubishi at a time when the company appears to be on its last legs. Gambling its future on military contracts, the company sends Horikoshi to Germany, hoping he can help them reverse-engineer whatever the Junkers will let them see. Of course, he will be able to raise the company’s game substantially.
In no way, shape, or manner does Miyazaki justify Japan’s militarist era, but he has still taken flak from both sides of the divide over “Wind.” Frankly, it presents a gentle but firm critique of the Imperial war machine.
At one point, Horikoshi is even forced into hiding, designing the military’s fighter planes while he evades the government’s thought police. Indeed, such is a common experience for the best and the brightest living under oppressive regimes.
Yet, Miyazaki is just as interested in Horikoshi’s grandly tragic romance with Naoko, a beautiful artist sadly suffering from tuberculosis. Horikoshi makes a number of difficult choices throughout the film, every one of which the audience can well understand.
Given its elegiac vibe, “Wind” makes a fitting summation film for Miyazaki. Covering the immediate prewar decades, it complements and engages in a wistful dialogue with Goro Miyazaki’s charming post-war coming-of-age tale “From Up on Poppy Hill” (co-written by the elder Miyazaki).
One can also see and hear echoes of master filmmakers past, such as Ozu and Fellini, throughout the film. Any cinema scholar surveying Miyazaki’s work will have to deal with it at length, but it still happens to be a genuinely touching film.
After watching “Wind,” viewers will hope the real Horikoshi was a lot like Miyazaki’s version, and the same goes for Caproni. Miyazaki seriously examines the dilemmas faced by his protagonist while telling a lyrical love story.
Visually, the quality of Studio Ghibli’s animation remains undiminished, but the clean lines of Horikoshi’s planes and the blue open skies lend themselves to simpler images than some of his richly detailed classics. Regardless, “The Wind Rises” is an unusually accomplished film that transcends the animation genre.
Highly recommended for all ages and interests, it opens this Friday, Feb. 21, in New York at the Landmark Sunshine, in dubbed and the infinitely preferable subtitled versions.
Joe Bendel writes about independent film and lives in New York. To read his most recent articles, please visit www.jbspins.blogspot.com
‘The Wind Rises’
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Martin Short, Stanley Tucci
Run Time: 2 hours, 6 minutes
Release Date: Feb. 21
4.5 stars out of 5