This year's Venice Film Festival has already seen a number of filmmakers push outside their comfort zone. Alfonso Cuarón made a 3D blockbuster set entirely in zero gravity. Kelly Reichardt made a thriller. Stephen Frears made a good movie. But no departure has been greater from a filmmaker than the one that Hayao Miyazaki takes with "The Wind Rises." The 72-year-old Studio Ghibli mastermind has made his name with fantastical fables from "Laputa: Castle In The Sky," through his mainstream breakthrough in the West with "Princess Mononoke" and the Oscar-nominated "Spirited Away" to his most recent picture, "Ponyo." But he's never directed a film like "The Wind Rises," a biographical period drama that has a few flights of fancy, but is otherwise a grounded and very personal tale of aircraft design, the oncoming storm, and doomed love. And yet, it's a film that wouldn't work in any medium but animation.
The film opens in 1918, as young Jiro Hirokoshi (Hideaki Anno) dreams of flying a plane, only to be persuaded by a vision of Italian designer Caproni (Nomuna Mansai) that he should spend his effort on designing airplanes rather than flying them. Six years later, he's an engineering student at university when he's caught up in a terrible earthquake with young Naoko (Miori Takimoto), the pair making quite an impression on each other, but losing touch. He goes to work for Mitsubishi and rises swiftly through the ranks, eventually reconnecting with Naoko, but as he works on his masterpiece, the plane that will become the Zero, war and tragedy loom on the horizon.
As you might imagine from the lack of fighter pilot pigs, giant cat things or moving castles, this is a tale that takes place predominately in the real world. The opening dream sequences, with its giant airships and squid-like torpedoes, seems designed to make Miyazaki fans feel at home, but it's the most fantastical sequence in the film by some way. Instead, the story Miyazaki tells here is that of a fairly straight-ahead biopic. In fact, for much of the first half, it's quite a niche biopic at that—the director is quite the aviation buff, as his previous work might suggest, and he goes into a fair bit of detail on the ins and outs of aircraft design. It's never quite alienating though; Miyazaki is careful to show and explain what's what, so while his fellow airplane nerds may get the most out of these early scenes, it's still insightful and interesting to the layman.
But even beyond the love of planes, this feels like perhaps the director's most personal film. He's careful to portray the designers as artists rather than just engineers, and it's easy to find parallels between Mitsubishi and Studio Ghibli at work. In many ways, Jiro's obsessive attachment to his work feels like Miyazaki's Kunstlerroman—his portrait of the artist as a young man.
The parallels presumably don't extend to the second half, when Jiro reconnects with Naoko and the genre switches up, at least in part, to a love story. It's restrained, delicate stuff, almost low-key, but certainly packs an emotional punch. Without resorting to fireworks, a wedding sequence late on is one of the most beautiful things the director's ever put on screen.
And while this is mostly something set in the real world, this isn't a film that could ever be told in live action. From the way that the planes are subtly anthropomorphized to the giant crowd scenes to the subtle heightening of everything from a bravura earthquake sequence to the wind of the title, all of the skills that Miyazaki and his Ghibli animators have accumulated over the years are on full display here, and few films this year will treat the eyes better.
It's a touch disappointing that the film's biopic structure proves as constraining as it does; most of the story beats play out as you'd expect them to in a film like this one. But if the story itself is conventional, the way it's told is anything but. There's a lot to unpack here, with debate likely to continue long past its eventual U.S. release (and it should be noted that it's fairly surprising that Disney have picked up a film that features as much smoking as half a season of "Mad Men," even given the long association between the two studios). It might not be the director's most immediately accessible films, but it's among his most fascinating and beguiling. [A-]