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.

Full review at EFC

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