Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki has created some of the screen's most alluring and soul-inspiring images in the past few decades. This longtime manga magician became most familiar to western audiences with the release of "Princess Mononoke," his first international hit in 1997, and continued to draw audiences into his unique spellbinding visions with 2001's Oscar-winning "Spirited Away" and 2004's "Howl's Moving Castle."
This past week, the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood has presented a display of his concept art, sketches, notebooks and exclusive memorabilia from many of his films. Miyazaki's latest, "The Wind Rises," is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature this weekend but sadly the septuagenarian has announced that this will be his final feature.
While the Japanese language version was released briefly last year, Disney (the U.S. distributor) has wisely made an English-language version that goes out on wide release this week (screening at AMC Burbank) with many familiar marquee names attached as voice talent, including Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, Martin Short, Stanley Tucci and Mandy Patinkin.
While it may be his last, in many ways "The Wind Rises" feels like Miyazaki's most personal. It's a grand epic — a story told over three decades about an artist and inventor who despite the adversity around him strives to create beauty and excellence.
Also unusual for Miyazaki, the film's protagonist Jiro (voiced by Gordon-Levitt) is based on a real character — Jiro Horikoshi, the Japanese aeronautical engineer who designed the legendary and deadly Zero fighter that was used extensively through World War II (including many kamikaze missions).
While the creator of an airplane that caused the loss of so many lives hardly seems a topic for an animator who is renowned for his themes of pacifism and environmentalism — drawing some controversy for the film for it's light-handed treatment of war — "The Wind Rises" is more a poetic look at Jiro's life. We first see him as a nearsighted young boy dreaming of flight and inspired by the famous Italian aeronautical designer Caproni (Tucci), a character he meets in his dreams.
Through the path of Japan's turbulent history — including poverty, depression, epidemic illness and the devastating Grant Kanto Earthquake of 1923 (animated in breathtaking sequences) — Jiro's singular vision remains as he joins a major engineering company and becomes one of the world's most innovative and accomplished airplane designers as his country arms for war. Not that Jiro wants to make lethal machines. He wants to make flight available for civilians, but the country is in the business of war, and when he suggests it would be easier to leave the bombs off the plane for better maneuverability, the response is laughter from his colleagues.
The march of technological progress is not what makes this film so enchanting and engrossing. It's the intricate details: Jiro finding a mackerel fish bone an inspiration for a design for curved wings; the beauty of his doomed relationship with the gentle Nahoko (Blunt), stricken with tuberculosis, making their time together so precious; and the spectacular expanses of sky and landscape in contrast to the chaotic roads and clustered houses as the country strives for modernism. It all makes Miyazaki's film a must see.
KATHERINE TULICH writes about film and culture for Marquee. Follow her on Twitter: @KatherineTulich.