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Either way, it's a work that shows Miyazaki as an artist not just at the very apex of his own creativity, but of the entire animated form. No one in animation -- whether hand-drawn, computer-generated or a sleek fusion of the two -- is creating canvases quite this epically fluid and color-saturated, yet still alive with witty individual flourishes. Miyazaki's films are utterly distinguishable from those of other directors in the Ghibli stable, with this one more distinct still. It's as if working in a mode of (relative) narrative realism has necessitated his most florid vision yet. From the rich plum of a woman's signature hat to the sparkling spring green of the grass that -- interestingly for a story with its head in the clouds -- seems to fill the screen more expansively than the sky, even the simplest aesthetic choices here inspire sharp intakes of breath.
Tragedy is even an occasion for beauty in this film, where the shattering Tokyo earthquake of 1923 proves a formative event in Jiro's own life. Miyazaki realizes the disaster with jolting visual specificity, shaking and compressing exquisitely drawn landscapes like a carpet being shaken out from under, and illustrating the subsequent environmental carnage with piercing streaks of magenta flame amid the roiling gray. If it seems hardly appropriate for a sequence this devastating to be this purely beautiful, the earthquake is also a key initiating event in the film's late-blooming love story: it's here where Jiro meets his future wife Nahoko, then a mere child.
Nahoko and Jiro meet again in the 1930s at a countryside retreat, setting in motion the film's most satisfying stretch of sustained visual storytelling: an exquisite seduction sequence involving paper planes and wind-buffeted umbrellas has all the swoony, wordless grace of a Gene Kelly ballet. But the bliss doesn't, and indeed cannot, last: not with WWII looming ahead, its extent and gravity unknown to them and all too known to us, and not with Nahoko placing her own finite terms on the relationship.
It's as a stylized romance, its heartbeats subtly reflected in Miyazaki's vivid atmospheric detail, that the film works most rewardingly as an emotional experience. As a one-man biopic, however, its earnestly traditional storytelling can seem dry, even a little turgid, against the film's more innovative sensory properties. (Structurally, this isn't a million miles from the noble, profession-oriented biopics than studios cranked out in the 1940s, often for leading men as dour as Walter Pidgeon.)
At over two hours, there's perhaps a smidge more nitty-gritty aeronautical detail than I strictly needed to feel enraptured -- and, by a mordant ending that requires the viewer to fill in a few historical blanks, suitably intimidated -- by the miracle of flight. In this ravishing passion project from an artist still in full autumnal leaf, planes are as hearts are as hats: all starships, meant to touch the sky.
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