Wind Rises, TheReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/21/14 12:49:12
As many have already noted, 2013 was not the most fertile period for feature-length animation by a long shot--most of the films released during that time were either unnecessary sequels or unwanted knockoffs and the usually reliable people at Pixar let loose with their weakest effort to date with the depressingly banal "Monsters University." Even the biggest hit of the bunch, Disney's "Frozen," was maddeningly uneven at times and while it did enchant its target audience of young girls, it never came close to approximating the brilliance of the likes of "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast" and the other modern classics that helped bring the format back from the dead. However, the most crushing blow to animation fans--hell, movie fans of any stripe--came with the announcement that Hayao Miyazaki, the revered Japanese animation genius behind such masterpieces as "My Neighbor Totoro," "Princess Mononoke" and "Spirited Away," was going to be retiring. Granted, this disclosure wasn't completely out of the blue--the man just turned 73, after all, and the amount of work that he personally puts into his films would exhaust someone half his age--but the idea that there will never be another new Miyazaki film to savor is somehow unfathomable. Imagine if Walt Disney, the man to whom Miyazaki is most often compared, had announced one day that he was throwing in the towel for good--that is the kind of impact that this announcement had for his legions of fans around the world.The only possible way that this particular blow could be cushioned would be if Miyazaki could go out on top with one last masterpiece--the kind of film that would serve as a summation of some of the key ideas and themes that he explored through his ten previous features while at the same time showing that he was a filmmaker who was never afraid of exploring new artistic approaches that would help to expand notions of what could be achieved in the animation medium. Happily, in the case of his latest and evidently last film, the Oscar-nominated "The Wind Rises," that is exactly what has happened. This is a glorious film that perfectly encapsulates everything that has made his work so special and distinctive over the years even as it embraces a more naturalistic form of storytelling than the elaborate fantasy narratives of his past. The result is one of the very best animated films of recent times--perhaps since his last effort, the beguiling children's tale "Ponyo"--and if there was any justice in the world, this film will pull off a coup on Oscar night and allow Miyazaki to win his second award for Best Animated Feature over the heavily favored "Frozen."
The film is, of all things, a biopic focusing on the life and work of Jiro Horikoshi, the celebrated Japanese aviation engineer responsible for the creation of, among other things, the A6M (better known as the Zero), the sleek and powerful plane that would eventually lead Japan's air forces during World War II. When we first see Jiro, he is a young boy in the provinces whose vivid dreams involving flight fuel what will become a lifelong obsession with taking to the skies. Armed with some English-language aviation magazine and a translation dictionary, he becomes a quick study on the subject and becomes especially infatuated with the innovative creations of Italian designed Giovanni Caproni--so much so, in fact, that the Italian occasionally serves as his dream guide to help illustrate that aviation is just as much about art and beauty as it is about science and technology. Taking his inspiration from sources ranging from German engineer Hugo Junkers, the creator of the first metal-frame planes, to the arc of a mackerel bone, he quickly rises through the ranks at the Mitsubishi engineering firm and eventually comes up with the design for the A6M, a development that would make someone who was himself too near-sighted to actually pilot a plane into one of the most influential people in aviation history.
While Jiro is out revolutionizing aviation history, the history of his own country in the years between the two world wars, the focus of the story, is radically shifting in ways that affect him in deeply personal ways as well. While traveling via train from the provinces to Tokyo to begin his studies, he meets a young girl named Nahoko and when disaster hits in the form of the devastating 1923 Kanto earthquake, he rescues both her and her injured nanny and returns them to their home safe and sound. Years later, while establishing his career, he happens to run into the now-grown Nahoko again and the two are instantly smitten. Unfortunately, a tuberculosis epidemic that has swept the land claimed the life of Nahoko's mother and Nahoko caught it as well while caring for her. Nevertheless, the two marry and try to live a happy and loving life despite the virtual death sentence implied by her illness. Meanwhile, the clouds of war are beginning to gather and as soon as Jiro's innovations are proving to work, they are quickly put to work for military purposes that Jiro himself hardly seems to notice.
Because Miyazaki is telling a real-life story in which the only flights of fancy, so to speak, occur in the hero's dreams, many have deemed "The Wind Rises" to be a radical shift from his earlier fantasy-based works. While it is true that the mystical imagery and mythical storylines of those previous films have been put to the wayside--the most fantastical image on display, an enormous tri-wing creation of Caproni that looks like a child's dream of an airplane, is based on an actual plane of his, the Caproni Ca.60, whose 1921 test flight is depicted here--there are still a number of key thematic elements that Miyazaki has explored in the past that crop up here as well. First, and most obvious, is the very notion of flight itself. The idea of soaring through the clouds is one that has clearly gripped Miyazaki, whose own father ran a factory that made rudders for the A6M, from an early age and has often appeared in his films in forms ranging from the elaborate flying machines at the center of "Castle in the Sky" and "Howl's Moving Castle" to the basic premise of the lesser-known "Porco Rosso," which told the story of an Italian WWI pilot who was transformed into a pig and which also featured a character inspired by Caproni. What is interesting is that Miyazaki is just as interested in the process as the end result and as gripping as the flying sequences are here, the scenes that show him puzzling things out at his desk are just as fascinating in the way that they depict an artist in the throes of the creative process.
Another aspect that Miyazaki revisits here deals with the notion of technological innovation and the ways in which such advances are almost inevitably twisted around and transformed into forms meant to destroy mankind rather than enhance it. This idea could be found in "Nausicaa" and "Princess Mononoke" and this film, perhaps because of its factual basis, forms Miyazaki's most straightforward statement on this concept. One of the things that makes it so powerful is that Miyazaki doesn't rub our noses in it in the way that a lesser filmmaker might--like everything else, he treats it in a low-key manner on the assumption that his viewers will be able to understand without having every single thing dumbed down and spelled out for them at length. Alas, his faith may have been misplaced this time around as the film has received criticism in some quarters from those who suggest that the lack of an overt "War Is Bad" message means that Miyazaki is endorsing the militaristic mindset of the time. That is not the focus of the story at all--Jiro is so consumed with creating and executing airplane designs on their own terms that the upcoming war almost feels like an afterthought to him--but anyone who comes away from "The Wind Rises" believing it to have a pro-war slant has clearly not been paying attention.
So yes, this seemingly wildly different film does actually fit in perfectly with Miyazaki's oeuvre but "The Wind Rises" is also a triumph purely on its own merits. Even though a film chronicling the work of a Japanese aviation expert might not seem to be the most gripping of possible storylines, the film is never less than utterly engrossing. Although working in a more realistic manner than usual, there is no shortage of visual delights on display here and the extended sequence depicting the Kanto earthquake is one of the most elaborate and striking setpieces of his entire career. Dramatically, the film is just as strong--Miyazaki's depiction of the creative process is compelling even to those who have no working knowledge of aerodynamics and the love story that eventually develops between Jiro and Nahoko is touching without delving into mawkish melodrama. While the end result may not necessarily be the best film to serve as an introduction to Miyazaki's work for newcomers, others will find watching it to be an enormously enriching cinematic experience.I should note at this point that as has been the case with Miyazaki's other films, "The Wind Rises" exists in both its original Japanese-language version and in an English-language dub that replaces the Japanese vocal cast with the dulcet tones of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, Martin Short, Stanley Tucci, William H. Macy and, most intriguingly, the one and only Werner Herzog. Although the original version screened during its Oscar-qualifying run last November, the version now playing in American theaters is the redubbed version--the Japanese track will no doubt be included as part of the eventual Blu-ray release for the purists out there. Although I have not yet gotten a chance to see the English-language dub, Disney has done an admirable job in the past with these translations and I see no reason to believe that things would be any different this time around--just the notion of Herzog contributing his distinctive voice alone makes it of interest. Nevertheless, I have a feeling that the Japanese version might be more appropriate considering the specific national identity of the story. When the Blu-ray comes out, I look forward to comparing the two versions to see if the choice of language affects it to any significant degree. If nothing else, it will give me an excuse to watch this truly extraordinary film a couple more times, not that there is any reason why one would require an excuse to do such a thing.
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