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Animated Japanese biopic a revisionist flight of fancy

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Gorgeous hand-drawn animation is a staple of Hayao Miyazaki's work.

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Gorgeous hand-drawn animation is a staple of Hayao Miyazaki's work.

The Wind Rises was a dream project for the great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, and this gorgeous film makes a fine capstone for his career.

But even though it has fanciful dream sequences and some of the most lovely hand-drawn imagery of the Emperor of Anime's career, the subject matter and his treatment of it are a puzzlement. It's basically a biopic about Jiro Horikoshi, who designed planes for the Japanese military before and during the Second World War.

This Jiro dreams of Zeroes.

And Miyazaki -- famed for Ponyo and My Neighbor Totoro -- chose to tell a story and tell it from such a distinct point of view that had he shot it with live actors, The Wind Rises would have had zero appeal outside of Japan.

We meet young Jiro in a dream, a student who takes flights of fancy in his sleep, visiting his favourite Italian airplane designer, Giovanni Caproni (voiced by Stanley Tucci).

"Airplanes are not for making war," Caproni purrs to the kid he calls "Japanese Boy." "Airplanes are beautiful dreams."

Jiro (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) pursues his own dream, to become an engineer and design such aircraft. He lives through the great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, stunningly re-created here, and the militarism that came to dominate Japan in the days and years after it. The heroic Jiro rescues an injured nanny and the little girl she cares for, with long-term romantic consequences.

And with his pal Honjo (John Krasinski), he starts designing planes for an unidentified company -- Mitsubishi. Since the military is doing all the buying, that means they're designing fighter planes and bombers.

Thus begin Miyazaki's strained efforts to view the Second World War in that arm's-length way official Japan has long treated it.

"We're not arms merchants," the engineers rationalize. "We just want to build good aircraft." That little matter of the war? That just sort of happened.

Jiro and Honjo travel to Germany to study the Junkers way of building warplanes -- but we never see a swastika or Teutonic Cross. A German tourist (voiced by the great director Werner Herzog) warns Jiro of the doomed path both Germany and Japan are taking.

Miyazaki skips past almost all of the unpleasantness of the Second World War -- for instance, focusing on flawed bombers easily shot down rather than the innocent Chinese civilians they were bombing.

The planes depicted here are lovely things, from the impractical dream craft of Caproni to the various successes and failures of Mitsubishi. Their deadly use? Let's not think about that -- rather like celebrating the life of the fellow who invented the AK-47 without mentioning the butcher's bill.

But the sentimentalist in Miyazaki lovingly recreates a Japan he has his engineer characters criticize as "backward" -- the steam trains, "penny ferries" and gorgeous wooden architecture that dominated the country between the world wars. Oxen laboriously tow each prototype airplane to the airfield before its test flight.

A love story comes to dominate this highly fictionalized version of Jiro Horikoshi's life, as he falls for a young woman (Emily Blunt) whose health is the stuff operas and soap operas are made of. Touching, but it makes the movie drag.

Martin Short provides comic relief as a blustering boss. Krasinski and Tucci are well-cast for roles that demanded a lighter touch.

And as any fan of the History channel and its clones can verify, there's nothing wrong with celebrating a triumph of engineering and thing of beauty like the Zero. But not addressing the way it was used and the war the country started so that it could use it just reminds us that Japan still dreams of denial, as far as the Second World War is concerned.

-- McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 28, 2014 D6

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