Movie Reviews

“The Wind Rises’: Beautiful imagery, difficult subject matter | 2½ stars

Updated: 2014-03-01T23:10:43Z

By LOEY LOCKERBY

Special to The Star

In nearly every way, “The Wind Rises” is a typical biopic. It traces the life of a significant person (in this case, aviation engineer Jiro Horikoshi), checking off his accomplishments and placing them in historical context. It even has a love story.

What sets it apart is the peculiar style of Hayao Miyazaki, the legendary Japanese animator who wrote and directed (and who claims it will be his final film). With his vivid, gorgeous visuals — the film was nominated for an animation Oscar — and his penchant for dark fantasy, Miyazaki takes a straightforward tale and gives it an unexpected sideways kick.

That’s true for the first hour, anyway. Jiro is an imaginative child, fascinated by the possibilities of flight, and his dreams are rendered by Miyazaki as visions that morph into unsettling prophecies. Jiro (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the English dubbed version) is growing up in the shadow of Japan’s militarization efforts, and he will go on to create planes used to drop bombs in World War II.

Even so, he’s just a young man with great talent and passion. He doesn’t like what his country is doing with his work, but he never seems too upset about it — he’s just a cog in the machine, doing what he loves the only way he can.

This moral quandary is addressed periodically, both in dialogue and in the overall tone. An early scene depicts Jiro’s survival of the Great Kanto Earthquake and its fiery aftermath, which devastated Japan in 1923. Miyazaki uses human voices to create the film’s sound effects, and the earthquake is like a monster coming to life, devouring everything it doesn’t set ablaze in its roaring fury.

That odd, doom-laden atmosphere permeates the sequences dealing with Jiro’s early life and career and offers the hope that Miyazaki will tackle the issues that simmer beneath the story’s surface.

No such luck. About halfway through the movie, Jiro is reacquainted with Nahoko Satomi (Emily Blunt), whom he helped rescue during the earthquake. They get married in fairly quick order, partly because she suffers from tuberculosis and doesn’t know how much time she has. While Jiro is still shown at work, Miyazaki’s focus drifts away from the details of fighter plane wing design and toward a completely different kind of movie.

It’s no surprise to learn that the love story is fabricated, loosely adapted from the work of author Tatsuo Hori. Miyazaki is a romantic at heart, so the relationship between Jiro and Nahoko is sweet, but it also seems like an intentional distraction. As Jiro’s planes become more beautiful and efficient, he helps his country overcome its technological inferiority in the worst possible way.

Miyazaki glosses over this — even when he acknowledges the coming destruction, he shows Jiro mourning the loss of all that fabulous aircraft more than any loss of life. What starts as a complicated depiction of a genius in a harsh world becomes weighted down by contrivance and “just doing my job” denial. “The Wind” rises, but it never has the courage to soar.

(At the Alamo Drafthouse, Barrywoods, Merriam, Studio 30.)

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