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‘The Wind Rises’: Hayao Miyazaki turns truth into sublime fantasy

The hero “The Wind Rises” is based both aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi novelist Tatsuo Hori. |  STUDIO GHIBLI

The hero of “The Wind Rises” is based on both aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi and novelist Tatsuo Hori. | STUDIO GHIBLI

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With the voices of:

Jiro Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Honjo John Krasinski

Nahoko Emily Blunt

Caproni Stanley Tucci

Touchstone Pictures presents a film written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Running time: 126 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for some disturbing images and smoking). Opens Friday at Landmark Century Centre.

Updated: March 22, 2014 6:07AM

See it for the way it captures the beautiful dream of flight.

Flying machines and flying in general have always been a specialty of Japanese animation great Hayao Miyazaki, from “Castle in the Sky” in 1986 to “Kiki’s Delivery Service” and “Porco Rosso” in 1989 and 1992 to “Howl’s Moving Castle” in 2004. His characters are airborne again in the atypical, not entirely successful but still sublime “The Wind Rises.”

Unlike Miyazaki’s previous films, which all had a strong element of fantasy, “The Wind Rises” is rooted in real life and devoted to real-world relationships and concerns. In broad outline, it’s the life story of Jiro Horikoshi, the gifted aeronautical engineer who designed Japan’s Zero fighter plane — for several years a dominant force in World War II. (It featured prominently in the attack on Pearl Harbor and in Kamikaze attacks near the end of the war.)

The film is very highly fictionalized, however, blending elements from the lives of both Horikoshi and, oddly, the novelist Tatsuo Hori, who lived during the same era. Miyazaki has said he wanted the film to be a portrait of Japanese youth in the tumultuous 1930s. His main inspiration from the life of Horikoshi was his statement, late in life, that his only desire had been “to make something beautiful.”

As a result, Mayazaki’s Jiro, from early boyhood on, is as much an artist as an engineer, a kind, decent and even heroic figure given to magnificent dreams and visions involving wonderful flying machines. The great Italian aircraft engineer Gianni Caproni (a personal hero of Miyazaki) frequently appears to provide his views, including the handily thematic “Airplanes are not tools of war; airplanes are beautiful dreams.”

Caproni designed bombers during World War I, however, just as Jiro (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the dubbed U.S. release), whose dreams seem almost divinely inspired, finds highly paid employment in the Japanese defense industry in the era leading to World War II. That conflict in itself doesn’t constitute a problem, but it’s ultimately a bit disappointing that Miyazaki deals with it by having Jiro simply shrug it off with serene resignation: If mankind insists on being self-destructive, what can he do about it? That approach makes the abrupt conclusion feel like short shrift in terms of coping with the terrible consequences of the long buildup to war.

If “The Wind Rises” falls a bit short in regard to historical drama, however, it’s still a Miyazaki movie, meaning he casts the same magically beautiful spell. Nobody does dreams better, particularly dreams of flying. It captures Jiro’s journey from boyhood to adulthood, as well as Japan’s tumultuous history between the world wars (including the Kanto earthquake and fire that destroyed much of Tokyo in 1923, a tuberculosis epidemic, a Great Depression and the rise of fascism) with a purely poetic sensibility. And it even finds room for a touching, tragic romance.

Miyazaki has announced that “The Wind Rises” will be his final film, though it seems now he may have changed his mind. Let’s hope so. “An artist is only creative for 10 years,” he has Caproni proclaim at one point, but Miyazaki has been creating works of genius for nearly 30. Why stop now?

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