"The Wind Rises," the final film from the retiring master of Japanese animation, Hiyao Miyazaki, is nothing if not peculiar. Set in a Japan slumbering through the 1930s and heading toward a tragic awakening, it's charming, nostalgic, tender, exceptionally evocative and rendered in exquisite detail. But there's the little matter of its hero, Jiro Horikoshi, the brilliant aeronautics engineer. He designed the Mitsubishi Zeros that bombed Pearl Harbor and attacked Allied forces during World War II.
Though often called the Walt Disney of his country, there's a reason Miyazaki has never equaled Disney's massive global appeal. His animation company, Studio Ghibli, is known for idiosyncratic storytelling. Ghibli movies can be fantasies, like the Oscar-winning "Spirited Away," or realistic dramas like "Only Yesterday." Though Ghibli films are universally admired for their animation, their distinctively Japanese themes and motifs sometimes defy cultural translation.
"The Wind Rises," an Oscar nominee for best animated feature, feels like such a case. The film presents Jiro, voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as a serious and dedicated engineer who eats, breathes and dreams planes. (The movie includes several colorful, airborne fantasias that swirl in Jiro's head.) There is a girl, Nahoko (Emily Blunt), whom he will lose and find again, but Jiro is mostly an idealized Japanese student-worker figure: humble, polite, usually found at his desk. John Krasinki provides the voice of his refreshingly garrulous colleague Honjo.
Though it may be possible to admire Jiro, "The Wind Rises" doesn't give us many concrete reasons. Jiro looks up to Giovanni Caproni (Stanley Tucci) and Hugo Junkers, whose companies manufactured bombers for Italy and Germany, respectively -- two countries that were definitely not the good guys in World War II. If Jiro had any qualms, he doesn't show them. He does propose lightening the Zero by losing its guns, but when his colleagues begin laughing he says no more about it.
"The Wind Rises" clearly isn't propaganda. Its overarching tone is melancholy, a sorrow that machines of such beauty should be used for war, destruction and death. "Planes are beautiful dreams -- cursed dreams," says Caproni. The movie seems a little similar: Gorgeous, wondrous and troubling.
PLOT An animated biopic about the Japanese aeronautics engineer Jiro Horikoshi, who designed fighter planes during World War II.
RATING PG-13 (smoking, adult themes)
CAST Voices of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, John Krasinski
BOTTOM LINE Hiyao Miyazaki's final film seems an odd choice of material, but the animation is exceptionally beautiful and evocative. Better suited to adults than children.