Is Hayao Miyazaki Gone With The Wind?

If the world's most esteemed director of animated features really is retiring, he goes out on a soaring note with 'The Wind Rises'

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Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki in Los Angeles, July 28, 2009.

The news hit the Venice Film Festival like an unexpected death notice: Hayao Miyazaki, the world’s most honored creator of animated features, was ending his movie career. “Miyazaki has decided that The Wind Rises will be his last film, and he will now retire,” Koji Hoshino, who runs the director’s Studio Ghibli, announced at a press conference for The Wind Rises, which received its European premiere here yesterday.

The movie has already earned more than $80 million since its July 20 release in Japan, where Miyazaki is a box-office phenomenon as well as a national treasure. His last four films — Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo — have grossed about $700 million in his homeland, and $871 million including foreign markets. Miyazaki is expected to speak about his decision in Tokyo later this week.

Moviemaking, which requires a general’s gift for strategy and a foot soldier’s fortitude, is supposed to be a young man’s game. Miyazaki is 72, the age by which CEOs have slipped into wealthy anonymity; so he deserves a gold watch for his sunset years. But filmmakers, like other artists, often keep going as long as they find sponsors for the things they want to show and tell. This year’s Venice festival boasts world premieres from two other 72-year-olds, Stephen Frears (Philomena) and Terry Gilliam (The Zero Theorem), plus a documentary on the Polish leader Lech Walesa that was directed by Andzrej Wajda, a robust 87.

(READ: Mary Corliss’s Venice review of Stephen Frears’ Philomena)

Wajda is a pup compared with Leni Riefenstahl, the German genius behind the ’30s documentaries Triumph of the Will and Olympia, who released a new film about SCUBA diving on her 100th birthday, in 2002; or with the Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira, who made his first film in 1931 and is now preparing another feature — at 104! Among Miyazaki’s compatriots, Akira Kurosawa continued making films into his 80s, Kon Ichikawa into his 90s. For all these auteurs, putting their pictures on the screen wasn’t a job; it was their life.

But if Miyazaki, who in 2003 won an Oscar for Spirited Away, really wants to hang it up, he couldn’t have picked a more piquant swan song. The Wind Rises — its title taken from Paul Valéry’s poem Le Cimetière marin (“The wind is rising! We must try to live!”) — weaves a tender, tragic love story into two volcanic decades of Japanese history, from 1918 to the end of the ’30s. Here are indelible images of the great Kantō earthquake of 1923, and the firestorms that devoured whole cities and killed perhaps 140,000 people. Here is the Depression that wracked Japan while its government spent millions buying weapons from Nazi Germany.

In his first film intended primarily for grownups, Miyazaki has courted political controversy, in his home country and now abroad. The director’s protagonist, whom he portrays as a visionary dreamer, is Jirô Horikoshi, designer of the Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” fighter planes that crushed the Chinese resistance to Imperial Japan in the late 1930s and, on Dec. 7 in the year of Miyazaki’s birth, dropped the bombs on Pearl Harbor.

(READ: Kirk Spitzer’s report on the Japanese controversy over The Wind Rises)

The movie is actually a double bio-pic: of Horikoshi, whose life it follows from youth through university to his work at Mitsubishi, with a brief coda after World War II, and of the author Tatsuo Hori, whose 1937 novel The Wind Has Risen tells of a tubercular girl at a sanitarium; Hori died in 1953, at 48, of TB. His life and works inform the character of Naoko Satomi, the young woman who becomes Jirô’s wife. (In the film, Hideaki Anno, director of the Evangelion anime films, lends his voice to the adult Jirô; actress Miori Takimoto voices Naoko.)

Miyazaki has long poured his fascination with all things airborne into his movies. The 1986 Castle in the Sky pits flying pirates against the citizens of a magical floating realm. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) gave its 13-year-old witch the job of delivering parcels by broomstick. Another species of air pirates patrol Porco Rosso (1992), this time doing battle with an Italian aviation ace whom a magic spell has transformed into a pig. The young heroine of Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) is the portable flying house of a mysterious birdman. All these films proclaim that man, like birds, was meant to soar, and that the sky, not the Earth, is our true home.

(READ: Richard Corliss’s review of Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle)

The director has said that The Wind Rises was inspired by a quote of Horikoshi’s: “All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful.” Miyazaki often achieves just that, in a film that parades its beauty from its amazing first scene. The young Jirô climbs to the roof of his home and finds a plane parked there. Lured by its colorful avian design — white wings, blue feathers, a red tail, pink wheels and a yellow nose — Jirô scoots aboard this metallic bird for a lovely jaunt, until shadowed by a huge dirigible carrying dozens of military aircraft; the boy falls from the sky and awakes in his bed. The whole film is a series of flights and falls, airy ambitions that crash-dive into compromise and tragedy.

Stark history and buoyant fantasy often link arms in The Wind Rises. An aircraft buff from youth, Jirô imagines encounters with Giovanni Caproni (voiced by Mansai Nomura), who in 1911 built the first Italian plane, and was the model for the Italian flyer-designer in Porco Rosso. Caproni serves as Jirô’s spiritual guide, telling the boy that “The whole world’s a dream.” He looks forward to the advent of commercial aviation: “Instead of bombs, we’ll carry passengers.” (But his first attempt — essentially a cruise ship lifted by nine sets of wings — crashes.) When Caproni says, “Inspiration unlocks the future; technology will catch up,” he might be anticipating the untrammeled dreams of directors like James Cameron, Ang Lee and Alfonso Cuarón nearly a century later.

(READ: Richard Corliss’s Venice review of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity

In the age of digital animation (and live action), Miyazaki has remained faithful to the hand-drawn technique — the Disney style — that predated Pixar’s CGI. Indeed, his human figures are abstracted into giant-eyed doll faces and stiff legs, as if walking clumsily on stilts. Even the adult Jirô looks like any anime child; and when he stumbles to the ground, his hands and feet make no visible impression on the grass.

Most of the director’s grace goes into the landscapes: rural vistas rendered in the most delicate pastels, like the watercolors Naoko paints during Jirô’s courtship of her. In a hard land heading to a war that the sensitive Jirô, Miyazaki makes sure the views are ravishing. His perfect metaphor for a Japan straddling the old world and the new: the planes he designed are pulled onto the practice field by teams of oxen.

(READ: Richard Corliss’s review of Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo)

This exquisite paint-brushing, or whitewashing, extends to Jirô’s visits to Germany, to gauge their military-aircraft ingenuity against his, and to his development of the Zero prototype. And when Miyazaki might start addressing the consequences of Horikoshi’s creations, he leaves the Mitsubishi factory to concentrate on the Jirô-Naoki love story. Staying with his wife to comfort her in her illness, he jokes that, “In a one-hand slide-rule contest, I’d finish first” — because, while working at home, he always holds her hand. Their devotion is heart-strong and constant; as Naoki says, “I’ve loved you since the wind brought you to me.” Their scenes together are sweet and touching. But this last half-hour of the two-hour film might have considered the impact of Jirô’s Zero. It was a beautiful machine that helped tyrannical Japan dream of conquering the world, and that brought death more swiftly to its enemies.

Whatever the political implications of a movie that glamorizes and elegizes the makers of war, The Wind Rises shows Miyazaki at his most confident. The film betrays no hint of sapping energy, let alone senility; it is vigorous, subtle, daring and gorgeous. May his announced retirement be a brief, dark whim. May he go on enchanting and challenging moviegoers for years to come.