First, a confession: I have never been a fan of Japanese animation. It's a stylistic thing. I simply cannot understand the animators' insistence against smooth-flowing movement. They're capable of producing visuals that are haunting, surreal, even horrifying. And yet the walk cycles are still herky-jerky and the mouths are still basically small holes that are either open or shut. In terms of human characters, it's like nothing's changed since the 1960s. Why, Japan? Why?
The Wind Rises is actually the first Japanese animated feature that I've paid to see in a movie theater. The swan song of the legendary Hayao Miyazaki seemed important enough to catch, especially given its unusual subject matter. For after decades of producing wild visionary rides like Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro, Miyazaki decided to retire with a film so subtle that, frankly, it could have been a live action drama. Its subject matter? Real-life aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi, who designed many of the airplanes flown by the Japanese army in World War II.
That's right: a two-hour animated biopic about a guy who designed planes for the kamikaze.
I don't mean to sound glib about this. Actually, I laud Miyazaki's audacity to go out not with a bang, but with a (slightly controversial) whimper.
The Wind Rises doesn't say much about WWII – the focus is on Horikoshi's life from the early 1910s up through the 1930s – but the specter of war hangs over the film from the very first scene (Miyazaki's trademark fantastical imagery is seen here only in Horikoshi's dream sequences). Horikoshi is depicted as an apolitical, even pacifistic artiste, uneasy with his designs' ultimate use for the military, but so obsessed with building the perfect plane that everything else – his marriage, his conscience – becomes secondary. Miyazaki provides little commentary on Horikoshi's myopia; the character is a bit like Alec Guinness's Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai (or, indeed, the Manhattan Project scientists who were building the atomic bomb in New Mexico as Horikoshi was plying his own trade): so concerned with doing his job right that he doesn't really consider who or what he's doing it for. Col. Nicholson, at least, is proven to be a fool. Miyazaki lets Horikoshi off the hook.
Disney, which distributed The Wind Rises stateside, traditionally hires Hollywood actors to dub Miyazaki's films, presumably with the director's OK. I understand the rationale: subtitles would draw audiences' eyes away from the visuals. But in this distinctly Japanese story, quite a lot is lost when we hear Horikoshi speak with Joseph Gordon-Levitt's lifeless American monotone. The original Japanese dialogue, with subtitles, would have been more appropriate.
In the end, I appreciate the subtlety on display in The Wind Rises. There are some lovely moments, and I can appreciate the delicate craft of making two-dimensional drawings feel like real people. But I should warn you: you might find so much subtlety in an animated film to be rather boring. I counted quite a few walk-outs at my matinee screening, and that's something, considering that U.S. viewers willing to shell out a few bucks to see Japanese animation on the big screen are already displaying a lot of good faith. (There's a reason why Japanese animation still hasn't won over the vast majority of Americans, even after 40+ years.) I stayed until the end, but I did find myself checking my watch. Aerospace engineers, however, are likely to adore this movie.