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Wind Rises, The (2013)

Shortly after Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises screened at the 2013 Venice Film Festival came the news animation fans had long dreaded. The master announced that the feature was to be his last as a director- and after several false alarms, it seems this time it's going to stick. As a result, the film would now have even greater significance for fans of animation the world over.

Based on a short manga written by Miyazaki himself in 2009, The Wind Rises is a fictionalised biography of Jiro Horikoshi, the acclaimed aeronautical engineer. The choice of subject matter was always going to raise eyebrows, as the real Horikoshi was the man responsible for designing the Zero fighter, the fearsome planes used by Japan during the Second World War. Yet anyone familiar with Miyazaki's past work will know that there was never any chance this would be a film that was pro-war or glorifying Japan's Imperial past in any way.

Set primarily in the 1920s and 30s it charts the course of Jiro's life leading up to and including designing the infamous aircraft. Obsessed with flight from an early age, his dreams of being a pilot are dashed by his poor eyesight and he sets his sight on designing aircraft instead. Joining a major aeronautical corporation, with the shadow of the oncoming war, Jiro and his colleagues find themselves dragged into the war effort.

The film concentrates on the civilian world, with normal people mostly as yet untouched by the war getting on with their lives. The few time military or government forces are referenced or included they are seen as threatening or sinister, not depicted positively at all.  Still, the film wears its anti-war stance pretty lightly, preferring to concentrate on the characters. That probably explains how it gained criticism from both sides of the political spectrum in Japan and elsewhere- accused of being both pro-war, pro-Empire and anti-war and anti-Japan. Ultimately though any reading of it as glamorising Japan's Imperial behaviour is contradicted by the movie's stunning end, where Jiro's professional triumph is contrasted with personal heartbreak and future tragedy.

Putting politics aside, this is as technically accomplished as any of Studio Ghibli's other works. The animation is every bit as beautiful as you'd expect. The backgrounds are sumptuous and the character designs are pure Miyazaki. It recreates a sense of time and place wonderfully. It's an era of Japanese history we rarely see (for obvious reasons) but it's made completely believable in the Miyazaki's hands.

As you may have guessed from the setup, the film is pretty heavy on Miyazaki's trademark flight sequences. The story allows him to indulge his lifelong obsession with aircraft on a scale not seen since Porco Rosso. Whenever it takes to the sky, The Wind Rises soars, and the flying scenes do not disappoint.

Another highlight is the Great Kanto Earthquake set-piece. The gorgeous animation and some interesting sound-design (using human voices to create sound effects) combine to create a truly memorable sequence, arguably one of the best in Miyazaki's lauded career.

Perhaps most interesting of all though is the ways in which The Wind Rises stands alone in Miyazaki's body of work. The decision to create a reality based drama means it feels closer in some ways to Ghibli's more down-to earth work like From Up On Poppy Hill and Only Yesterday. A few dream sequences allow Miyazaki to create some more fantastic aircraft, but otherwise it remains very much in the real world. There's no fantasy creatures, forest gods, talking pigs or moving castles here.

It's a very mature work, dealing with adult themes such as love, loss and war. After his last feature Ponyo skewed very young, it was a surprise for Miyazaki to create a film that seems firmly aimed at an older audience. There's more of an overt romantic sub-plot than is usual in Miyazaki's work too. It's actually questionable if this will work for younger viewers at all. While there's nothing too strong here content wise, it's likely that kids will find this a little slow- and ultimately maybe too sad.

Jiro's romance with Nahoko, is an emotional highlight, but as Miyazaki heroines go she is not the most richly drawn. In fact, by Ghibli standards, female characters are thin on the ground here and not quite as central to the narrative as in earlier films.

There's a sense this is Miyazaki's most personal work. In Jiro, he perhaps sees a kind of kindred spirit, a fellow creative for whom the work is its own reward. In how the work he loves keeps him away from his soul-mate, we may be seeing the regrets of an often absentee father at the end of his career. But it's also a tribute to his own father who owned an aeronautical company who was drafted into making parts for the military during the War.

As is usual for an English language release of a Ghibli film, it comes complete with a high-quality English dub. Joseph Gordon-Levitt puts in a great central performance, with able support from Emily Blunt, Stanley Tucci and John Krasinski. Best of all though is a rare acting performance from acclaimed German director Werner Herzog, bringing a sense of authenticity to a relatively minor character, who none-the-less plays a pivotal role.

Long-time collaborator Joe Hishashi returns on scoring duties, meaning the music is of a typically high standard. However accomplished the score may be, sadly The Wind Rises lacks a truly memorable theme- unlike many of their earlier collaborations.

Miyazaki's swansong's flaws may prevent it from being his greatest, but still stands as an incredible work of art. In some circles is has become fashionable to dismiss his later work- particularly since the release of Ponyo- but this is the work of a true master of animation. The Wind Rises is proof, if it were needed, that without Miyazaki the world of animation will never be quite the same again.