The story goes that that Hayao Miyazaki’s backers and colleagues at Studio Ghibli begged the animator to come back and direct one last feature before retiring. He could make whatever he liked.
The great man took them at their word and set to work on an animated feature concerning Jiro Horikoshi, the engineer who designed the Mitsubishi Zero fighter for the Imperial Japanese Air Force. Good luck selling that to a family audience.
The Wind Rises does, on paper, read like a departure from the fantastic worlds of Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. Indeed, the story has much in common with that of The First of the Few, Leslie Howard's 1942 stiff-upper-lip biopic of RK Mitchell, designer of the Supermarine Spitfire. But there is magic here.
In the opening sections, Miyazaki imagines his hero communicating with Gianni Caproni, the Italian aeronautical engineer, and that conversation continues telepathically throughout the film as we encounter earthquakes, espionage and a touchingly delicate love affair.
All this is conveyed with the spooky energies that that have helped set Ghibli apart from all other studios. A paper plane becomes a bird. An equivocal German tourist takes on the quality of a visiting warlock. Human beings splutter the engine noises. The Wind Rises is nobody's idea of a naturalistic piece of work.
Indeed, if the film has a flaw, it is that it too assiduously avoids the (literal and figurative) nuts and bolts of the engineer’s work. We learn much about Horikoshi’s relationship with a wife who, having survived the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, falls fatally ill with consumption. But the innovations that made the Japanese fighters so feared receive only cursory treatment in the film’s closing sections.
The Wind Rises is also troublingly oblique about the morality of its hero's endeavours. Forewarnings of doom and creepy encounters with Nazis make it clear that the issue is somewhere to the middle of Miyazaki's mind. There are, however, no real attempts to drag that matter forward and discuss the engineer's responsibility for the misuse of his inventions.
Those worries nag a little. But The Wind Rises – a tribute to Miyazaki's father, who was also involved with the Zero's design – is sufficiently charming to keep them at bay. Let's hope Hayao's latest retirement is no more permanent than his earlier retreats to the daybed.