Thursday, March 06, 2014

The Wind Rises (Kaze Tachinu)

When the Studio Ghibli retrospective made its first stop in Boston a couple of years ago, Laputa: Castle in the Sky made me ponder how Miyazaki's love of flight and his environmentalism are often at cross-purposes, and how his then-next film (not yet fleshed out or identified as his swan song) would likely address this dichotomy more directly. At the time, it looked like he might be discussing the very recent (at the time) Fukushima nuclear disaster, although instead he winds up focused on a real-life figure who designed airplanes.

In some ways, though, it's the most fitting way to say what he means. As much as Miyazaki loves flight, it's an activity that consumes a lot of energy, and that's a constant concern in the parts of The Wind Rises that are about the practical design of aircraft: The engines available in Japan are not powerful enough for the planes that Jiro Hirokoshi wants to build and that the army demands. Of course, it's not just mechanical energy that is needed to fly these machines; Jiro must build a thing that will be used to kill, which not only damages his own soul, but that of his country. Miyazaki explicitly seems to be saying that this thing he loves isn't worth it; that it is corrosive and damaging and that building airplanes means doing things that are harmful to the country, much the same way that Japan's high-energy-use lifestyle is also damaging. That inevitably causes the country to do things like build nuclear power plants [with inadequate oversight and inspection] which are capable of quite literally hurting the country.

I must say, I'm impressed by the way Miyazaki does this. It would be very easy to make this film accusatory, a lecture, and somewhat insufferable. Using this particular metaphor, though, means that Miyazaki is including himself among the guilty rather explicitly, and while he doesn't offer any solutions or remedies, real or metaphorical, the quiet humility of this project is impressive. On a certain level, he does suggest that the problem is industrialization and urbanization (themes that were even more central in Howl's Moving Castle and Princess Mononoke), with characters constantly describing Japan as "backwards" and how discussing how difficult it would be to catch up to Western countries, and even has Jiro suggest that they stick with wood and canvas before his friend and colleague Honjo shoots that idea down.

In some ways, that's an old man's indulgence in nostalgia, suggesting that there was some ideal point that we blew right past, and the wonderful airplanes he loves are good enough. Miyazaki has provided us with enough sincere, thoughtful entertainment over the years to be allowed that perspective, even if it's not particularly practical.

I wish he was doing more after this - and I will almost certainly pick up his samurai manga if that ever gets published in the United States - but given how The Wind Rises does, in fact, approach the contradiction inherent in his loves and works, it's probably a good place to stop. It's a great movie in part because of its self-reflection, but you don't want to fall too far down that rabbit hole.

Kaze Tachinu (The Wind Rises)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 1 March 2014 in Coolidge Corner Theartre #1 (first-run, DCP)

When Hayao Miyazaki discussed his work on the film that eventually became The Wind Rises soon after the Fukushima disaster, he spoke of how his next film would be upsetting as a reaction to that. Now, that film has been revealed to be his last - which is upsetting for a different reason - and while the subject matter is only vaguely connected, he has still made a pointed film on modem concerns. Even though his skill as a storyteller and gentle style disguise it as a historical romance, he leaves the film business on a thoughtful, serious note.

Initially, The Wind Rises seems like a simple biography of Jiro Horikoshi, who is introduced as a young boy so plane-crazy in the early years of the twentieth century that he works his way through English-language aviation machines and dreams of meeting legendary aeronautical engineer Caproni. He studies hard, even as his university is damaged in a massive earthquake, and eventually lands a job at Mitsubishi. Most of the projects there are military, although Jiro simply worries about designing fine aircraft. Well, that and Nahoko Satomi, the love of his life whom chance brings back into his life after they had meet on a train years earlier.

Miyazaki does not shout to make sure the audience gets the message; there is no scene where Jiro is asked to justify building a machine that will be used to kill people. On the other hand, the fact that he is making that deal with the devil is never far in the background. Consider an early sequence, where young Jiro fights off a group of bullies, is admonished by his mother that violence is never a good solution, and give the sort of assent that indicates he's not going to change at all. At first it looks like a way to show Jiro as a man of decency and principle, and it does, but on reflection it also suggests that he can't adhere to the hard values. Throughout the entire movie, Jiro never stops to consider whether what he is doing is right, in the grand scheme of things. He is a man made to design planes, and the army needs them.

The director may not ultimately condone this mindset, but he sympathizes. Love of aviation has been one of the most recurrent themes in Miyazaki's films, and he does a fantastic job of showing how it can consume Jiro so, whether by showing his quite charming determination to get even the design of a small paper airplane right, meticulously recreating the aircraft of the period, or providing an exploded view of a small part of a wing to see not just how Jiro views it, but how the intricacy fascinates him. Airplanes are beautiful things to both character and director, and even if the viewer comes away questioning Jiro's legacy, they will probably come away with a new respect for mechanical engineering.

The airplanes Miyazaki draws and animates are especially beautiful. One of his underrated talents has always been how he takes mechanical things like airplanes - things that many animators would render digitally even in an otherwise traditionally animated picture - and put them on screen with not only obsessive accuracy but a unique sort of warmth. Other Miyazaki specialties are on display, too: A kid with big, sardonic eyes, non-Japanese characters with details like Caponi's mustache that are lovingly emphasized and yet no more serve to make them unreal than the way he renders Jiro's short boss with the funny haircut. Miyazaki has always been the sort of matter cartoonist who knows how to use exaggeration to deliver a message, and he similarly always seems to have the proper amount of motion happening at any given time.

It builds nicely, perfectly moving from a child's fantasy to an increasingly solid reality interweaving Jiro's and Nahoko's love story into what could have been very mundane depictions of study and work, but always making what is going on interesting and giving it a weight that the audience can feel but which never threatens to crush them. There are one or two moments when the story makes a bit of an odd jump, but even when it does, the film tends to earn it with something beautiful. There are moments of great charm and humor sprinkled throughout,occasionally quite striking visuals, and a well-earned sentimentality that seldom overrides the sincere, serious thoughts he wishes to share.

While Miyazaki never makes any obvious references to the likes of Fukushima, the underlying theme is clear - worrying about being "backwards" or "behind", as the engineers in this film constantly characterize Japan, seldom leads to a good end. It's nothing he has to state, though; instead, he leads us to a point where this can't be missed, and because all the details of the route that leads there are so wonderful, we thank him for it, and most likely find The Wind Rises a finale worthy of the master's career.

(Formerly at EFC)

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