Whenever Hayao Miyazaki, now 72, makes a film, fans and critics weigh it against this anime master’s past triumphs — and often find it wanting. Japanese critics, especially, fondly recall the films that Miyazaki directed at the start of his long career as peaks. That is, 1979′s “Lupin Sansei: Cagliostro no Shiro (Lupin the Third: Castle of Cagliostro)” over 1997′s “Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke),” the period fantasy that was a box-office smash at home and broke Miyazaki widely abroad.
I’ve resisted playing this game, and not only because I like the gorgeously strange “Mononoke” more than the jokey “Cagliostro.” I’ve admired Miyazaki for his unbridled imaginative flights and prodigious labors at a time of life when many animators have long since burned out, even when the films themselves were narratively long-winded or baggy. And I’ve loved the worlds he created, with their finely observed, lushly rendered naturalism that made even the more out-there scenes feel thrillingly beautiful and real, the train ride through the water in 2001′s “Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away)” being one well-remembered example.
That naturalism is still front and center in his latest film, “Kaze Tachinu (The Wind Rises),” but it is also suffused with nostalgia for a vanished time, similar to 1992′s “Kurenai no Buta (Porco Rosso),” his “air pirates” animation set in the inter-war era. Based on a Miyazaki manga that mixes the prewar life of famed Zero fighter-plane designer Jiro Horikoshi with a 1938 Tatsuo Hori novelette about star-crossed love, the film is again drawn with loving attention to period detail, as well as stirring flights of fantasy.
The story, however, reworks antique formulas such as “bright young man makes good” and “young lovers are parted by cruel fate” that powered many a studio film when Miyazaki himself was younger. In fact, Hori’s “Kaze Tachinu” was made into two live-action films, in 1954 and 1976. Miyazaki, who also wrote the script, does little particularly new with these formulas, save adding dream sequences in which his hero, Jiro Horikoshi (voiced by veteran animator Hideaki Anno), encounters Gianni Caproni (Mansai Nomura), a pioneering Italian aircraft designer and his fabulous (in all senses of the word) planes. Caproni, portrayed as comically portly and blithely fearless, serves as a sort of life guide for the hero, while his planes are sensual delights for not only their grace in the air, but the fleshy, carefree young women who fill them. Miyazaki, after decades of drawing spunky 13-year-olds, has allowed himself a rare moment of erotic freedom.
In the waking world, however, Jiro is that standard-issue type, the smart, nerdy kid with the big dream. But unlike the many contemporary cinematic examples who are physically weak and socially awkward, Jiro is brave and bold. Coming to Tokyo for college, he selflessly assists a girl he meets on the train in the chaotic and deadly hours following the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. Then, after graduating with a degree in aeronautical engineering, he plunges into a new job at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, a major aircraft maker, with a fresh eye for innovation and a cheerful disregard for naysayers, beginning with a pint-sized, perpetually frowning senior named Kurokawa (Masahiko Nishimura).
In this, he resembles Miyazaki, who as a young animator rose through the corporate ranks of Toei Animation with new ideas backed by a talent for persuasion — and brilliant execution. The path of Jiro and his colleagues is not always onward and upward, however, as planes falling out of the sky prove, but they refuse to be discouraged. Always motivating Jiro is his mission, inspired by Caproni, to “make beautiful airplanes,” though his military clients will use them as weapons of war.
Then, a decade after his arrival in the big city, Jiro serendipitously reunites with the girl, Naoko (Miori Takimoto), now a vibrant young woman who loves painting as much as he loves planes. A big-nosed foreigner (Steve Alpert) at the Karuizawa hotel where they are both staying serves as a sort of Cupid, while her well-off father (Morio Kazama) approves of their friendship, which soon blossoms into something more. Their new bliss is symbolized by the balletic flight of a Jiro-designed paper airplane, but Naoko’s tuberculosis takes a turn for the worse — and their time together suddenly becomes all the more precious.
So, yes, “The Wind Rises” is an old-fashioned tearjerker, but it is also a visually sumptuous celebration of an unspoiled prewar Japan.
At the same time, Miyazaki inserts reminders of the era’s social and economic turmoil and hints of later environmental calamities, as well as stark visions of the war that would sweep much of the old loveliness away. By the end, the film feels like a summing up of everything he’s made and cherished and fought against to date and, perhaps, a swan song. If so, he’s crafted a soaring goodbye on the wings of his beloved planes — and paper touched by the hand of genius.
Fun fact: The title is a reference to a line from the Paul Valery poem “Le Cimetiere Marin (The Graveyard by the Sea)” that translates as: “The wind is rising! We must try to live!”
For a chance to win one of five “Kaze Tachinu (The Wind Rises)” wooden rulers, visit http://jtimes.jp/film. The deadline is July 29.