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Miyazaki's final film, about war, unwittingly creates battles

Jiro Horikoshi in "The Wind Rises"
Jiro Horikoshi in "The Wind Rises"
Studio courtesy

If you know nothing about history before 1945, you can appreciate "The Wind Rises" as a lyrical, romantic, beautifully crafted film. Otherwise, along with the film director, you will be caught up in an intense controversy.

Hayao Miyazaki - a great, original filmmaker, a prominent advocate of pacifism and feminism - is ending his career, at age 73, with this surprising and troubling (to some) work.

"The Wind Rises" opens in San Francisco on Feb. 21 (review coming then) and nationwide on Feb. 28. It is about the life and work of Jiro Horikoshi. He was chief engineer of Japanese World War II fighter planes, including the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter, one of the deadliest instruments of the war, in the forefront of action from Pearl Harbor to kamikaze attacks.

Try as he might to offend no one, inevitably, Miyazaki is caught between his countrymen accusing him of being unpatriotic (in a country whose prime minister has honored the war dead - and war criminals - at the Yasukuni Shrine) and the millions around the world who still remember Japanese attacks and occupation. In China and South Korea especially, the film is being denounced as a "celebration of Japan’s wartime aggression."

Jiro (as he is called throughout the film) and Miyazaki share a love of flight. Flying and water permeate Miyazaki's uniquely "painted" films - "Castle in the Sky," "Princess Mononoke," "Spirited Away," "Howl's Moving Castle," "Ponyo" - and they have an apotheosis in "The Wind Rises."

Miyazaki masterfully mixes the stories of Jiro's love for beautiful design and his eventful pursuit of his wife-to-be whom he first meets in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 (similar to the Honshu quake in intensity and the tsunami it generated) and involved in the national TB epidemic, then Japan's plunge into war.

Considering the catastrophic settings of "The Wind Rises," it is strange that one of the strongest objections against it in the U.S. is the historically accurate depiction of all-around smoking (even in the presence of TB patients). Critics claim that smoking (which I hate as much as anyone) in a "film for children" (because it's animated!) is especially objectionable. Any more than earthquake, TB, and war?

Another troubling aspect of the U.S. release is that it is dubbed. Even with a star-studded voice cast of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, Martin Short, Stanley Tucci, Mandy Patinkin, Werner Herzog (?!), Jennifer Grey, William H. Macy, and Elijah Wood, Miyazaki in English is just not right.

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