I recently made a trip to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, where the Wright brothers made their first flight in 1903. My wife and family accompanied me as I walked starry-eyed through a museum dedicated to Orville and Wilbur Wright, containing massive, faithfully rendered recreations of their early planes. At one point, I walked across the field where their initial tests and breakthrough efforts were made to perfect the first flying machines. I found myself running with my arms stretched out, taking in the feel of the wind and imagining the thrill the Wrights must have had when their meticulously considered aircraft suddenly took flight.
Growing up with a father who is a pilot and relishing opportunities to take to the skies all my life, it meant a great deal to me to reflect on the origins of flight, back when it was still amazing to see a massive aircraft soar through the air. The brilliant animator, Hayao Miyazaki, also relishes the opportunity to reflect on the miracle of flight and the progress made towards making commercial passenger aircraft possible.
Audiences familiar with Miyazaki’s previous animated films will be aware of their serious stories and thoughtful storytelling, as well as their striking beauty. He directed Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and (my favorite) Kiki’s Delivery Service. He produced The Secret Life of Arrietty, the charming fantasy that Disney released in 2012 with an English voice cast but maintaining the richness and depth of the story.
That particular dubbing job worked, though Miyazaki’s fans have been vocal about his other films being too altered in the American versions released stateside. I saw the original Japanese version of The Wind Rises and have yet to see the U.S. version. John Krasinski, Elijah Wood, Emily Blunt and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are among the cast of actors selected for the English language version. I can vouch for the quality of the film itself, the storytelling and the staggering imagery.
We follow Jiro, first seen as a young boy, whose love of flying defines his life. We’re witness to his dreams, in which he meets Italian plane designer Caproni. The sight of the two of them discussing the possibilities and poetry of flight, while pacing on the wing of a plane, the clouds swirling around them, is a glorious illustration of Miyazaki’s own passion for this story.
Along the way, there are images of an earthquake in 1923, looking like a frightening apocalypse. There’s even a love story, with an emotional resonance that snuck up on me. I was touched by the unlikely romance in Arrietty but the earthbound, dramatic romance that develops between Naoko and Jiro is stunningly adult and multifaceted.
Young children may be mesmerized by the rich animation but unengaged by the story, which delves into moral, historical and philosophical issues on the creation of military and commercial aircraft. Clocking in at just over two hours, this dialogue-heavy history lesson kept me engaged, even as its somewhat dense storytelling, large array of characters and key incidents make it fitting for adults. I grew tired of reading the steady stream of subtitles, as the dialogue is constant, though an American dubbing will make this a non-issue.
The busyness of the story’s history lesson make it seem more dramatically top-heavy than Miyazaki’s more whimsical fantasies. On the other hand, I underrated Arrietty a bit with a mere three stars and may have done the same thing here. Whether this is a one-time view or an essential Miyazaki masterpiece to revisit multiple times, seeing it on the big screen is essential.
Score: *** (1-5 Star Score)