Just look at that. When you start watching a Hayao Miyazaki movie, you see these gorgeous backgrounds and the unique, beautiful animation style and everything else is just gravy. It could maybe even be a bad story, the unique filter of Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli would make something trite into something surprising and extraordinary. But last year's The Wind Rises (風立ちぬ), while it's far from Miyazaki's best film, doesn't present a trite tale. It's much too bold, despite a somewhat lukewarm third act. It's about the intrinsic value of beauty and the obsessive nature of artists.
Werner Herzog has a small role in the English language version of the film which is somewhat appropriate as the protagonist, Jiro Horikoshi, who was the real life designer of the Zero fighter plane, is almost like a Herzog protagonist; possessed of an unwavering focus and a poetic sensitivity.
If you're learning Japanese, as I am, one word you'll definitely learn watching the Japanese version of this movie is "美しい", "utsukushii", "beautiful"--Jiro uses the word a lot to describe aircraft designs and dreams. Airplanes are "beautiful dreams" says famed aircraft designer Giovanni Battista Caproni in Jiro's dream--though Caproni says it's actually his dream and in the end settles for saying that it's their shared dream, a rather nice way of describing the shared passion of the engineers.
One flaw in the film is that the tension between Jiro's apparent belief in pacifism and the use of his designs as weapons of war are never really directed confronted. Though the movie begins with a fantastic sequence where Jiro, as a little boy, dreams of flying a plane of his own design and looking up to see the sky slowly filling with demoniac bombs.
The war takes a more peripheral place in the third act which focuses more on Jiro's wife slowly dying from tuberculosis--which did not occur in real life. It was Hayao Miyazaki's mother who had tuberculosis. Much of the Jiro of the film is based on Hayao's father Katsuji Miyazaki who ran a company that made parts for the Zero fighter during World War II. Scenes of Jiro and his wife are about as sentimentalised as one might fear encountering in a work about the artist's mother and father. But even in these scenes, beautiful designs and animation make the film well worth watching.
In light of the fact that his film version of Jiro was based somewhat on his father, it's fascinating that Miyazaki personally asked Hideaki Anno to provide Jiro's voice for the Japanese version. Aside from some scattered cameos, this was Anno's first film as a voice actor. He's a director of both animation and live action films, best known as the primary creative force of the anime studio GAINAX and the creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion. He and Miyazaki are old friends--Anno having animated scenes for Miyazaki's 1984 film Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.
It makes sense to cast a director and designer as Jiro. Though one is tempted to read more into it than that when considering Shinji, the protagonist of Neon Genesis Evangelion, was psychologically deliberately modelled on clinically depressed Anno and was portrayed as insecure, self-loathing, and tortured by guilt relating to the death and destruction wrote by his role as pilot of a machine of war. Miyazaki's Jiro, on the other hand, is a young man of strange calm and clear-sightedness during catastrophe. One of the best scenes, early in the film, shows Jiro without hesitation carrying a young woman, a stranger, with a broken ankle during an earthquake, all the while assuring the woman and her sister that he'll see them through. There's something rather beautiful about Miyazaki conferring the respect he feels for his father to Anno, who's twenty years younger than Miyazaki. In this, Miyazaki is strangely being for Anno both a comforting authority and an admiring fan. To me, it seems to imply Miyazaki's confidence in the perennial value of art.