The Wind Rises: An Animation Master’s Last Flight?

After Kiki and Spirited Away, Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki says sayonara with his first film for grownups

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Studio Ghibli / Touchstone Pictures / Disney

Isn’t 70 the new 50 — the age of both vigor and wisdom? Plenty of movie directors think so. At last year’s Venice Film Festival, three 72-year-olds competed for the Golden Lion: Stephen Frears with Philomena (now a nominee for the Best Picture Academy Award), Terry Gilliam with The Zero Theorem and Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki with The Wind Rises, his 11th feature in a career that has earned him world renown.

His 11th and, he says, last. On September 1st, at a Venice Film Festival press conference for the movie’s international premiere, Koji Hoshino, who runs the director’s Studio Ghibli, announced: “Miyazaki has decided that The Wind Rises will be his last film, and he will now retire.” In an Associated Press interview a few days later, Miyazaki said that he was no longer up to the four-year effort required for each of his features, which are meticulously hand-drawn (little or no CGI). On The Wind Rises he could work only about seven hours a day, not his usual 12 to 14. He was ready to pass the torch to a younger generation, including his son Goro, for whose directorial effort From Up on Poppy Hill the elder Miyazaki wrote the script. He said he would help update the Studio Ghibli Museum in a Tokyo suburb, telling the AP, “I might even become an exhibit myself.”

(SEE: Melissa Locker’s choice of the best Miyazaki movies)

He could be the prime exhibit in a Museum of Animation Masters. Miyazaki’s 1979 debut The Castle of Cagliostro and the 1984 Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind established him as a young visionary in the bustling industry of Japanese anime. He went on to create other creepy castles (Castle in the Sky, Howl’s Moving Castle), launched teenage witches (Kiki’s Delivery Service) and a flying pig (Porco Rosso), unleashed forest gods (Princess Mononoke) and fish-girls (Ponyo) and, in Spirited Away, which in 2003 won the Best Animated Feature Oscar, sent a plucky girl into a haunted bathhouse. His four films before The Wind Rises have grossed $743 million in Japan and $870 million worldwide. But Miyazaki is in it only for the art, and making his kind of art is exhausting. He may not want to climb yet another mountain.

Miyazaki couldn’t have picked a more piquant swan song. In his first film intended primarily for grownups, the anim-auteur courted political controversy. His protagonist, whom he portrays as a visionary genius, is Jiro Horikoshi, designer of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter planes that on Dec. 7, 1941 (the year Miyazaki was born) dropped the bombs on Pearl Harbor. The Wind Rises, which earned $115 million in its home country, has been ripped by the pacifist left for blessing the war aggression of imperial Japan and by the nationalist right for being “anti-Japanese.” Even the Japan Society for Tobacco Control has a grievance: people in the movie smoke too much.

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

The Wind Rises — its title taken from a line in Paul Valéry’s poem “The Graveyard by the Sea” (“The wind is rising! We must try to live!”) — weaves a tender, doomed love story into two volcanic decades of Japan’s history, from 1918 to the end of the ’30s. Here are indelible images of the 1923 Kanto earthquake and the firestorms that devoured whole cities and killed 140,000 people. Here is the Depression that crippled Japan while its government poured more money into its military.

The movie is really a double biopic: of Horikoshi, whose life it follows from his youth to his work at Mitsubishi, with a brief postwar coda; and of the author Tatsuo Hori, whose 1937 novel The Wind Has Risen tells the story of a tubercular girl at a sanatorium. The life and works of Hori, who died of TB in 1953 at age 48, inform the character of Naoko Satomi, the young woman who becomes Jiro’s wife. (In the English-language version released this week in the U.S., Joseph Gordon-Levitt provides Jiro’s voice, while Emily Blunt speaks the role of Naoko.)

(SEE: A trailer for The Wind Rises)

The Wind Rises is inspired by a quote of Horikoshi’s: “All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful.” Miyazaki often achieves just that. In the amazing first scene, young Jiro 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 and a yellow nose — Jiro scoots aboard this metallic bird for a lovely jaunt until he is shadowed by a huge dirigible holding dozens of military aircraft; the boy falls from the sky and awakes in his bed. The film is a series of flights and falls, airy dreams that crash-dive into disaster.

Stark history and buoyant fantasy often merge in The Wind Rises. Jiro’s spiritual guide is the Italian airplane designer Giovanni Caproni, who says, “The whole world’s a dream!” Caproni eagerly awaits the age of commercial aviation: “Instead of bombs, we’ll carry passengers.” But his first attempt, essentially an airborne cruise ship, crashes. That was Caproni’s tragedy. Jiro’s planes flew supremely efficient bombing raids, and that was his.

(READ: Lisa Takeuchi Cullen’s 2001 profile of Miyazaki)

Miyazaki has never cared much for the “realistic” animating of human figures; they are abstracted into giant-eyed doll faces and stiff legs, as if trudging on stilts. (Even the adult Jiro looks like any anime child.) The director expresses his true artistry in his landscapes: rural vistas rendered in the most delicate pastels, like the watercolors Naoko paints as Jiro courts her. In a hard land heading to war, Miyazaki makes sure the views are ravishing. His perfect metaphor for a Japan straddling the old world and the new: the planes Jiro designs are pulled onto the practice field by teams of oxen.

This exquisite paintbrushing, or whitewashing, extends to Jiro’s visits to Germany to gauge its aircraft ingenuity against his, and to his development of the Zero prototype. But as Japan flexes its military muscle, Miyazaki tiptoes away to concentrate on the Jiro-Naoko love story. Their devotion is heart-strong and constant; as Naoko says, “I’ve loved you since the wind brought you to me.” But this last half hour might have considered the impact of the hero Jiro’s Zero. It was a beautiful machine that encouraged tyrannical Japan to dream of world conquest, and brought death more swiftly to rival airmen and civilians alike.

(READ: Steven James Snyder on the Miyazaki-scripted The Secret World of Arrietty)

The Wind Rises may be a challenging end to a major artist’s career. But Miyazaki has retired before, after the 1997 Princess Mononoke, and he returned to make four more wonders, including this one, that immeasurably enrich his legacy. The new film betrays no hint of flagging energy, let alone senility; it is vigorous, subtle, thematically daring, visually gorgeous. So may his stated retirement be a brief, dark whim — and may he step out of his Ghibli Museum and create more masterpieces for it.