Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Wind Rises

Hayao Miyazaki is a director who needs no introduction.  He is a man whose prestige, talent, and body of work is so beyond compare that it can be said without hyperbole that he has no living peers.  Between "Nausicaa", "Castle in the Sky", "Princess Mononoke", "Howl's Moving Castle", and his previous film, "Ponyo", Miyazaki has had a simply absurd career, having made so many beautiful, inspiring, and loving films that it is almost unfair so much talent and power could exist within just one man alone.  There is probably not a director alive whom I respect more.  If there ever comes again a director with a vision equal to Miyazaki's, we as a human race would be horribly spoiled creatures.  Do we really deserve a Hayao Miyazaki?  We are so full of sin and failure, and then a movie a perfect as "Spirited Away" comes to us, and we can see for once, in animated form, the very grace of creation.

Now that this review has reached the highest levels of pretentiousness in just one paragraph, I can finally introduce "The Wind Rises", the latest film from Hayao Miyazaki.  "The Wind Rises" was just this Sunday nominated for Best Animated Feature, having been released already in Japan, and last fall given an extremely limited subtitled run in New York and Los Angeles in order to make it eligible for Oscar contention.  At the end of last month it was given another dubbed release, first only in major cities, and then a wider one across the United States.  Yesterday I finally got a chance to see it.  This review easily could have come out months ago, but I knew a proper Hayao Miyazaki film experience could not be enjoyed online or from cheap torrents.  I have never actually seen Hayao's work in theaters, and that was something that I had to do once before I died - I still have centuries of life left to live, but there's no reason to put off something as important as this.

"The Wind Rises" is a very loose adaptation of the life of Jiro Horikoshi (played in Japanese by none other than "Evangelion" creator Hideaki Anno), the aeronautical engineer who was the lead designer of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, the main Japanese fighter aircraft in WWII, and one of the greatest fighters of all time.  Miyazaki fictionalizes Jiro's personal life, creating a female love interest, Naoko, based upon the main protagonist of the 1937 Japanese novel "The Wind Has Risen" ("Kaze Tachinu") by Hori Tatsuo, from which this movie gets its name.  Jiro is a young man in love with the air, fascinated by plane designs, who wishes to follow in the footsteps of his hero, Italian WWI bomber engineer and pioneer of air travel, Count Giovanni Caproni.  Despite the film being Miyazaki's most grounded yet - a very serious adult drama taking place almost entirely in the real world - Miyazaki indulges in his own whimsical instincts by having Jiro meet with Count Caproni in their dreams, where the old Italian mentors the young Japanese boy, as together they ride their dream aircraft to a both violent and beautiful future.

There has been some discussion both in Japan and in the West over the subject manner, especially how this movie glorifies a machine that was used by the Imperial Japanese military for their deranged war for domination of the Pacific.  Miyazaki has generally been a pacifist in his filmmaking, rarely glorifying combat and ending his films with calm discussion, and respect for the natural world, rather than simply throwing the bad off a cliff. The Zero was a weapon that killed thousands of people, and helped fuel an ambition that brought ruin to Japan and much of the world.  More importantly, Japan has been very cautious in its treatment of the Second World War, rarely admitting guilt for its many atrocities across East Asia and the Pacific.  So any film that seemingly celebrates its war record is going to be controversial.

However, Hayao Miyazaki does not shy away at all from the dark future of the Zero in this film.  Jiro is told directly by Count Caproni in their first nocturnal meeting that warplanes are beautiful devices, but ones which are built for terrible ends.  There is every indication that Jiro understands the path Japan is following is disastrous, but he follows it anyway.  Partially because this is his job, but also out of a more simple desire to build his dream airplane, no matter the consequences.  This is his passion:  to make something beautiful, to make art.

Jiro flying one of Miyazaki's fantasy planes in an early dream sequence.

Miyazaki in many ways identifies with this aeronautical engineer.  To him, the passion to build fighters is as much a creative outlet as any other canvas.  Where Jiro Horikoshi made the Zero and its variants, Miyazaki created "My Neighbor Totoro", perhaps a more peaceful expression of human artistry, but not superior in brilliance.  The director has stated in the past that the Zero fighter was one of the very few truly brilliant accomplishments of the Japanese in WWII*.  It was a plane of unparalleled maneuverability, speed, and range - which shamed the Western powers who looked down upon Japanese engineering as second rate.  The Zero with its light design slaughtered the fat Brewster Buffalos, humbled the Spitfires and Hurricanes, and crushed the Curtis Hawks in 1941.  It was not until the arrival of the P-38 Lightning, with its more powerful engines and heavier armor, that the Zero was finally out-matched.  Japan's actions in the war were absolute insanity, but if they were able to build machines on all fronts as magnificently designed as the Zero, they just might have pulled it off.  Japan should honestly be proud of that machine... but still humbled by the terrible disasters they inflicted upon the world with it.  And that is exactly the tone Miyazaki takes here.

Miyazaki himself, however, has nothing to be humble about.  "The Wind Rises" continues his love-affair with the early age of flight, as previously seen in "Porco Rosso".  You can see more fantastic fantasy airships and aircraft in "Nausicaa", "Castle in the Sky", and "Howl's Moving Castle" - this is a director who loves the sky, loves flying machinese, and legitimately respects Jiro Horikoshi as an artistic peer.  I cannot imagine a Western director indulging his nerdy obsessions by making a movie about say, Kelly Johnson, the creator of the P-38, among dozens of other incredible aircraft.  Hollywood wisdom would say a historical drama about a mere engineer would be boring**.  But here we are, Miyazaki making yet another film about his passions,and like Jiro himself, he accepts the war, accepts the violence, but finds that it is the art and beauty of the act of creation that truly matters above all else. 

"The Wind Rises" is as pretty as movies get.

Much of the life of Jiro continues a theme of ephemeral beauty, a clear acceptance that nothing can last.  Jiro's primary love interest in the film is Naoko, a beautiful young girl who is suffering from tuberculosis***.  Count Caproni warns Jiro that an artist has only ten years to really create something that will change the world, so Jiro works his hardest to make his Zero, most of whom flew to a tragic end into Allied bullets for an insane pointless war.  Naoko and Jiro find time to get married and share their love even as she grows sicker and will die, they can only appreciate the time they have together for what it is as they live it.  

Of all people, Hans Castorp, the star character of Thomas Mann's novel, "The Magic Mountain" appears to join Jiro at a Japanese mountain hotel.  He seems to have literally jumped out from the pages of the novel where he was doomed to die in WWI, and wisely watches the main character as they fall in love.  Castorp warns them specifically that Japan will be destroyed by WWII, and that their love can only end badly, but seems as charmed as anybody that they continue to love each other despite everything.  The movie is so beautiful and well-made, yet we watch with the understanding that Jiro's creation will end only in tragedy, and his own nascent relationship is doomed.  All we do is appreciate those happy times as well.

Along the way towards those unfortunate endings, "The Wind Rises" is actually a shockingly high-spirited and pleasant movie.  The background painting work might be the very best that Studio Ghibli has ever produced, and Miyazaki, who has never been a mediocre director, films his movie with deliberate steady pacing, and simply gorgeous framing.  The planes fly in their haughty revolts against gravity, and you can see the glory and the achievement in the air.  Jiro and Naoko play together with a paper airplane during their courtship, in a completely silent and relatively simple scene, that is filmed with such energy and emotion as to be awe-inspiring.  This is a movie where Tokyo burns to the ground, where marriages are doomed by illness, where an entire nation is moving towards inevitable destruction, and yet for all the mood of impending doom, you are constantly charmed by the loveliness of the journey.

The battleship there is doomed to be sunk by American ships
in the Philippines.  Yet we still can appreciate its silhouette
behind that serene sunset.

An interesting recurring element in "The Wind Rises" is an usual choice in sound effects in various scenes.  When Tokyo is hit by an earthquake, rather than a typical sound of shaking that any studio would have pulled out of their foley archives, Miyazaki instead had a voice actor record a rumbling noise.  Planes when shattering do not make traditional noises, its again a voice actor.  It is an extremely idiosyncratic decision that gives an otherworldly quality to the film.  I do not understand the reasoning - much as I do not entirely understand why a Thomas Mann character is hanging out in 1930s Japan - but it is just one of those mysteries that enriches the film.  The entire film seems to hang right on the edge of straight realism and fantasy.

"The Wind Rises" is one of the most emotionally mature and difficult to digest of Miyazaki's films.  It is not directed for children, but its craftsmanship is of such high quality as to be universally comprehensible.  Any person who has ever held a dream in their heart, or simply wanted to accomplish something great in their lives will find something to appreciate and even love from this film.  We have long accepted that animation was a medium not exclusively made for young people, and "The Wind Rises" continues to expand the artform by creating something that is extremely adult.  Not in subject manner, but in its view of the world, and its own quiet wisdom.  All of this is, of course, accompanied by the usual Studio Ghibli scenery, which is at its highest form ever:  melodies of color, expert use of space and scenery to create mood, and a warm joy on the face of every character.

Many call Hayao Miyazaki "the Japanese Walt Disney", but I have to wonder, having seen "The Wind Rises", if that is somehow a mis-categorization.  Disney made movies full of life and beauty, but ones that were very straightforward and easy to enjoy.  "Frozen", the movie that beat "The Wind Rises", continues that tradition, and there is nothing wrong with that kind of filmmaking - its joyful, easy, and loving.  But "The Wind Rises" shows that Miyazaki can make things on an entirely different level than Walt Disney, much more complex and introspective art forms.  There is no reason not to love both kinds of film, but definitely introspection is rather lacking in most mainstream American filmmaking.

"The Wind Rises" is one of the best movies of 2013 and 2014 - it would be a crime to ignore it for any reason.  It is a movie that will make your life better, and expand your understanding of the entire world around you.

* Jiro's best friend in this movie is Kiro Honjo, the developer of the Mitsubishi G4M, more commonly known as the "Betty Bomber".  Honjo's design was radical, but deeply flawed, giving almost no protection to its engines or its fighter (indicative of an entire culture in Imperial Japan of reckless disregard for human life).  The Zero had a similar design, but was much faster and more nimble, so was much harder to hit.  Japanese pilots nicknamed the G4M "the cigar" for its shape, but little did they know that plane actually burn just as well - and they would be inside at the time.

** The 2004 biography of Howard Hughes, "The Aviator", directed by Martin Scorsese, is probably as close as the West has ever come.  But that movie was not really about engineering and artistic passion, it was more about Hughes' insanity and obsessive nature which isolated him from the world.  A great movie to be sure, featuring one of the best ever performances from Leonardo DiCaprio as the title character, but still, not quite the same thing.

*** Don't worry, this is not "Winter's Tale".  Nobody rides a horse - that is really a dog - into space.


  1. You captured exactly my thoughts on The Wind Rises as compared to Frozen. I feel that despite being beautiful and innovative, Frozen feels far more conventional than Miyazaki's film. It plays within the conventions of a Disney movie, whereas The Wind Rises was something else entirely. It doesn't make "sense" because it doesn't fit into conventions: instead, it is unexpected, a constant stream of beautiful surprises. I loved feeling that I had no idea where the film was going - it could do anything. And of course the theme resonated with me. Who else would make a film about the difficulties of being an artist and pacifist during a war? You can only make a film like that out of pure love.

    Less lofty aside note: Honjo and Kurokawa were hilarious.

  2. I think Wind Rises shows how little details can really elevate a film from good to great. I noticed so many flourishes to the animation like the way the car headlights reflected off the pavement in Germany or how the smoke from the plane engines burst through the propellors or how Jiro always had a shadow from his glasses on his face. Truly a fitting swan song for someone of Miyzaki's stature.

  3. I wanted to see more of grown up Chihiro, Jiro and his girl where just kind of bland. They had no personality. I cried when Chihiro fell through the sky in Spirited Away! it touched me man! OKAY!?
    this time i cried out of sheer boredom.
    But whatever. Its a gorogeous movie. Boring, but still great anywayz. Happy now??
    If i where a kid though and this was the first Miyazaki film i ever saw, i would never watch one of his movies ever again. its just so fucking boring.