VENICE - Is it a bird? Is it a plane? At several points in Hayao Miyazaki's frequently dazzling new feature "The Wind Rises," the answer might as well be both. Studio Ghibli devotees could be forgiven for scratching their heads a little when the news broke that the Oscar-winning animator -- hitherto a merchant of extravagant, culture-fusing fantasy -- was set to make a biopic of influential Japanese aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi. Engineering biography, however sexy a genre on its own terms, isn't known for its abundance of flying eel-dragons or midnight cat-buses.

So it seems both a reassuring assertion of identity and an audacious imposition when Miyazaki finds room almost straight away in "The Wind Rises" for extended -- forgive me -- flights of fancy: dream sequences in which some airplanes seem to distort and grow plumage, gliding (and falling) through the atmosphere with scarcely more human agency than the eerily self-propelled steel creatures of Disney's "Planes." Speaking of which, if we only needed one animated ode to the thrills of aviation on our screens this year -- and we do -- this is certainly it.

The dreamer of these visions is the young Jiro, a frail, four-eyed nipper growing up in rural Japan between the World Wars, whose ambitions of becoming a pilot are thwarted by his own extreme myopia. He directs his passion instead into precocious research on the subject, poring over English-language magazines on aircraft design to such an extent that his slumbering subconscious has no choice but to follow suit. Lushly moustachioed and spouting a steady stream of lyric wisdom, Italian aeronautics innovator Giovanni Caproni becomes a regular presence in Jiro's sleep.

"The wind is rising! We must try to live," he exhorts, via the words of poet Paul Valery, as the youngster dreams images of Caproni's greatest professional follies -- most vividly, a three-storey biplane that itself seems something of a Ghibli creation -- that he accepts as motivating rather than cautionary. 

Yes, "The Wind Rises" is a non-fantastical fantasy, and the rare Ghibli film in which the most arresting imagery has some basis in reality. It's not the first time the spirit of Caproni has entered the studio's canon: "Porco Rosso," their 1992 pigs-might-fly adventure, featured an aviation company plainly inspired by Caproni's own. The recycling of such reference points suggests we may be watching a veiled history of Miyazaki's own creative development as much as Horikoshi's.

"Artists are only creative for 10 years," Caproni cosmically advises Jiro as he grows up, studies engineering in Tokyo and swiftly establishes himself as the boy wonder of the Japanese aviation industry -- creating ever more streamlined and combat-ready plane designs for Mitsubishi, while his pacifist conscience wrestles with the destructive real-world application of his gifts. It's a mantra repeated often enough that one has to wonder if Miyazaki, whose brilliant career dates back considerably farther than 10 years, means anything personal by its inclusion. Is "The Wind Rises" a spirited gesture of continued defiance, or a belated sign-off?

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