Animation master Hayao Miyazaki works with an atypical sense of realism in “The Wind Rises,” sans the creatures and myths of his signature hits. It’s a rare animated biography, so fantasies are where they belong, in the dreams of aviation pioneer Jiro Horikoshi, the brilliant mind behind Japan’s cutting-edge fighter plane designs in World War II.
“The Wind Rises” is mostly set in the prior decade, when Jiro’s genius is budding and compromises are made between creating and destroying, his passion for engineering flight co-opted by Japan’s expanding military. Miyazaki encapsulates this period of Japan’s turn from tradition to technology in an indelible image, of Jiro’s latest experimental plane being pulled behind an ox cart. People will be killed thanks to Jiro’s designs, but Miyazaki keeps him pure of intention, imbuing the movie with melancholy, not guilt.
This is a gorgeous production, even by Miyazaki’s standards. At times it’s the teeming equal of a David Lean epic, especially in an extended sequence during Jiro’s young adulthood, beginning on a train where he’ll meet his eventual wife, Nohoko. During a station stop, an earthquake erupts, setting off a roaring inferno sweeping through a countryside dotted with fleeing refugees.
Miyazaki can’t resist a few whimsical moments, often leavened with a grave morsel of knowledge. Jiro’s recurring muse in dreams is the spirit of Italian airplane manufacturer Gianni Caproni, first aboard a steampunk bomber carrying happy-faced payloads. Jiro’s final dream just as subtly makes its antiwar statement, with Jiro strolling through a graveyard of crashed planes he designed. “The Wind Rises” brims with memorable images, romantic or fantastic but always breathtaking.
There’s also an effectively tragic romance sneaked in, with Nohoko’s tubercular condition and Jiro’s adoring loyalty exposing a side of the engineer’s personality his strict designs don’t reveal.
I previewed the original subtitled version of “The Wind Rises.” (The Nickelodeon, which is running the movie this week, will have both a subtitled version and a dubbed version with a vocal cast including Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Jiro, Emily Blunt as Nohoko and Stanley Tucci as Caproni.)