March 12 2014 12:00 AM

Anime feature captures the joy of imagination, the rush of true love

The power of animation comes from its ability to create dreamlike pocket universes where the real and the fantastic coexist in harmony. Want your everyman character to take flight? Just have him push off the ground, flap his arms and up he goes — no strings or green screen required. The rise of CGI has blurred this line, but its use in live action is still very much you-got-your-giant-robot-in-my-comic-book-movie, not a seamless blend.

Old school animated features have been rendered all but extinct by animation studios that have gone digital (sad fact: Disney laid off the last of its pen-and-ink department last year). Acclaimed anime writer/director Hayao Miyazaki boldly goes retro in the epic biopic/romantic drama, “The Wind Rises,” the story of a man and his flying machines. And it´s a flight worth taking.

Miyazaki, the maestro behind “Howl’s Moving Castle” and “Spirited Away,” creates a fictionalized biography for early 20th century Japanese aeronautics engineer Jiro Horikoshi, a visionary who revolutionized Japanese aircraft design. Leading up to WWII, Horikoshi worked on a series of wartime airplanes, which at the time were among the worst in the world. By incorporating natural elements into his designs —the gentle curve of a mackerel bone, the flexibility of a working joint — he gave them life. As depicted in this film, Horikoshi’s exuberance for engineering was only matched by his capacity for love, and “The Wind Rises” pays dues diligence to both.

Compared to your typical Pixar fare where millions are spent to render realistic fur, hair and steel, anime on the big screen does seem a little … cartoony. There’s certainly no mistaking the characters as being firmly planted in the world of anime, with their bulbous noses, giant watery eyes, and great flapping mouths. The lushly vivid backdrops of “The Wind Rises,” however, give you the feeling that you’ve strolled from the manga aisle into the Impressionism wing of an art museum.

The voice actors keep the film grounded in drama. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives Jori a subdued, elegant charm, and Stanley Tucci, Mandy Patinkin and Werner Herzog (!) provide solid back-up, giving a Western tinge to this distinctly Eastern art form.

The story does get a little syrupy at times — imagine if Nicholas Sparks wrote “Tucker: The Man and His Dream.” This isn’t an airplane movie — it’s a love story. Even as the gears of Jiro’s imagination spin, trying to figure out a way to transform these cumbersome steel beasts into organic, elegant flying creatures, his love blossoms and quickly deepens for a young woman he meets while on holiday.

The lines between dream and reality are blurred (great chunks of the movie are set in Jiro’s thoughts where he interacts with his hero, Italian airplane designer Giovanni Caproni), and Miyazaki sends the movie barrel rolling into whimsy with his imaginative sound design: Nearly all the movie’s sound effects are made using human voices — the “pkkkkhhhhh” of an earthquake, the “pocketa-pocketa-pocketa” of a propeller, the “fooooooshhhh” of wind as a character stands on the tip of an airplane wing.

Unfortunately Miyazaki claims that this, his 11th feature film, will be his last. The way the wind is blowing, this movie is probably one of the last of its kind, to be phased out for the newer models.

"The Wind Rises" (PG-13, 135 min.) is now playing at NCG Eastwood Cinemas, 2500 Showtime Drive, Lansing Township.