This is said to be the last movie that the great Hayao Miyazaki will direct. Even if that is not the case, he certainly put many of his trademarks into it.
The movie is nominally about the life of Jiro Horikoshi (although heavily fictionalized), aeronautical engineer and designer of some of Japan's most effective World War II era military aircraft, including the notorious Mitsubishi "Zero." Besides the story of Japan's push toward technological equality with the West, the movie also tells us the love story of Jiro and his wife, Nahoko, and is an elegy for inter-war Japan.
Among the Miyazaki trademarks evident are the gorgeous painted backgrounds, the occasional dreams and visions, and the fantasies of flight opposed to the threats from above, ranging from a pulp-magazine fantasy WW I German dirigible to an American B-29.
We are shown that, as a boy, Jiro was already in love with flight, and supposedly enthralled by the designs of Italian air pioneer Count Giovanni Caproni. That Miyazaki is enamored of Caproni we know from "Porco Rosso," but I have my doubts about Horikoshi, since nothing could be further from Caproni's Gothic flying boats and tri-motor transports than the spare and lean Zero fighter.
Jiro goes to Tokyo to school for engineering. We see him surviving the devastating earthquake of 1923, depicted in a sequence that that is all the more effective for its subtlety. We see the rows of houses in Tokyo tossed like chips on a wave, followed by smoke on the horizon, flaming debris born on the winds, and the eerie roaring what would become a firestorm that consumed much of the city.
After graduating engineering school in 1927, Jiro is given a job by Mitsubishi Internal Combustion Engine Company Limited, who are competing for military aircraft contracts. While the film shows Jiro troubled by the prospect that his designs may be used for war, as prefigured by the eerie Herr Castorp, he wants his country to become a modern nation, and so he works to design and build the best aircraft he can.
The movie has been released in both a dubbed and a subtitled version, which are alternating at the Oriental. We were pleased to get the subtitled version for our showing. I'm sure that the English dub, featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Emily Blunt as the voices of Jiro and Nahoko, is probably just fine, we do prefer hearing the expression of the original language. That said, there was very good voice acting by Hideaki Anno as grown-up Jiro and Miori Takimoto as Nahoko, and an excellent supporting cast.
One on line review suggested that this was Miyazaki's most beautiful picture. That might be debatable, but it is certainly a strong contender for that title. Being set mostly in the real world with some excursions into dreams, there are not the flights of fancy found in movies such as "Princess Mononoke," or "Spirited Away," but the delicate and lovely renderings of rural Japan succeed in portraying the country as a land worthy of being loved.
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