The Wind Rises, the new film from 72-year-old Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki, takes its title from a line in a Paul Valery poem (“The wind is rising! We must try to live!") and is inspired by the life of aeronautical engineer Jirô Horikoshi who designed Mitsubishi’s A6M Zero fighter. It’s probably the gentlest animated feature about an armaments designer you’ll ever see. “Poor countries want airplanes”, Jirô (Hideaki Anno) is told, as they watch oxen haul the latest prototype out onto the field for testing. Lacking the power of Western engines, Jirô and his fellow engineers must instead work with everything at his disposal — flush rivets, split flaps, retractable undercarriages, the lightest aluminium alloy — to reduce the drag on that aircraft and pluck it into the vast, blue yonder.
In that face-off between Western power and Eastern ingenuity you have both a portrait of pre-War Japan, its economy in the tank, desperate to pull itself into the 20th century, and a clue to what gives Miyazaki’s film its lyrical lift. In many respects, the animation traditions of America and Japan follow the course of their aeronautics industries. Whether it be Mickey losing control of his magic in The Sorceror’s Apprentice, young Dash learning to temper his speed in The Incredibles (“I'll only be the best by a tiny bit”) to the young sorceress of this year’s Disney hit Frozen, relishing the icy thrill of female empowerment, America’s animated features are, to a large extent, soft power tutorials — parables of the risk and responsibilities of great power. They put kids in the cockpit and teach them how to take their country for a spin. Mizyaki’s hero is instead marked by a more modest, even self-effacing gallantry. Too short-sighted to be a pilot, Jirô peers at the world through thick Harold Lloyd spectacles, watching planes carve great arcs against slowly moving cloudbanks. In his dreams, he talks a walk on their wings alongside his hero Italian aviator Giovanni Caproni (Mansai Nomura), who tells him "Airplanes are not for war or making money. Airplanes are beautiful dreams waiting to be swallowed by the sky.” Miyazaki’s fascination with flight goes all the way back to 1984’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, whose heroine negotiates the post-apocalyptic jungle by glider; was most fully explored in 1992's Porco Rosso, about a flying ace who happens to be a pig, chasing air pirates in the Adriatic sea.
The Wind Rises certainly doesn't scrimp on its aeronautic minutiae— taking inspiration from a mackerel bone, Jiro’s designs for strut fittings spring to life from his table in demonstration of aerodynamic principle — but for Miyazaki, the wonkishness equally edges into another abiding obsessions: the animating power of nature herself. From it’s shots of blooming parasols, breeze-filled curtains, fluttering snowflakes and rustling bamboo grass, there is barely a frame of The Wind Rises that doesn't serve as a reminder why Miyazaki named his studio after a wind, the Ghibli, capable of reshaping whole desert landscapes at a single stroke. Sounds awfully lot like an animator to me. It even blew Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas into each other’s arms in The English Patient, if memory serves.