Miyazaki’s ‘The Wind Rises’ breathes new life into the biopic

At age 73, legendary filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki is still finding ways to challenge himself and his audience. Known for his elegant and emotionally stirring animated movies, the Japanese director tackles the usually rigid world of the biopic in “The Wind Rises,” which he has said will be his last film. (To be fair, he has announced his retirement many times before and keeps making more movies, so we can hope this streak of false threats continues.)

The master of hand-drawn anime, however, isn’t leaving us without first putting his own stamp on the biopic genre. Even as “The Wind Rises” follows the traditional story arc of a character fulfilling his childhood goals and rising to the top of his profession, it’s also buoyed by frequent flights of fancy.

Planes with feathers for wings, model airplanes that turn into giant jets, people walking and talking on the wings of soaring biplanes — these are the dream-like images that are all meant to convey the majesty of flight through the eyes of one young boy.

Miyazaki’s film is loosely based on the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the man who engineered, among other aircraft, the Zero fighter plane, used by the Japanese military in World War II. A sincere passion for design, not war, is the true soul of this movie — which at just over two hours is a little relaxed — and the subtext finds Miyazaki reflecting on his own life’s work.

Along Jiro’s journey are some typical signposts: He falls in love, gets married and overcomes personal challenges, all within the backdrop of important historical events. But Miyazaki’s rare gift for making the purely emotional visual is on display throughout.

The Italian aircraft designer Giovanni Battista Caproni appears in Jiro’s dreams, and Caproni is surprised to be there because he himself is dreaming. Over time, he becomes a sounding board for Jiro as his art is co-opted for destructive purposes. The sequences while the two philosophize about the beauty of flight vs. the havoc that warplanes cause are presented with a mix of surreal images and “reality.” Again Miyazaki makes a case for the unique properties of traditional animation with fresh designs that feel like they’re from another time completely.

“The Wind Rises” weaves together familiar narrative elements — like the tragic romantic subplot — with awe-inspiring scenes that put the audience squarely in the mind of the obsessive Jiro. The aeronautic designer’s passion for his work is deeply felt, and when things turn dark, that feeling is amplified by meticulous, hand-drawn vibrancy.

Perhaps the reason that the film has come under fire from some critics for “downplaying” the destructive role of his planes in the war is that those key moments of reflection on the issue are also presented with the same quality as the other surreal sequences. It can come off a bit soft.

On the other hand, there are bombs with screaming red mouths — evil personified — and Jiro acknowledges the mistakes of the wartime Imperial regime. The condemnation feels like the rest of “The Wind Rises,” with one foot in the absurd.

Liberty Hall is showing both the English dubbed version of the movie (with voices from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Martin Short, and Stanley Tucci) as well as the original Japanese subtitled version. Check listings to be sure which one you are attending. I saw the Japanese version, and I usually prefer listening to a soundtrack in the film’s native tongue.

With animation, though, the voice syncing is usually much better than with live-action films and, especially with a Miyazaki movie, you may not want big subtitles clouding up the beautiful visuals. Another issue is that you may spend too much time reading them and not enough time taking in all of the detail in the images.