Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Wind Rises

Japan has given the world a lot of great filmmaking, including Akira Kurosawa, my favorite filmmaker. But one of their greatest exports is animation master Hayao Miyazaki, whom I've written about numerous times on this blog. Miyazaki's work is always gorgeous to look at, often emotionally affecting, and typically with a moral message but rarely didactically so. The Wind Rises, which everyone is calling his final movie (I'll believe it when he dies, he's been saying his current movie was his last one for 15 years), has at its center one of Miyazaki's best characters, Jiro Horikoshi. Jiro is an aeronautical engineer, eventually designing the famous Zero airplane Japan used during WWII. Flying has always been at the forefront of Miyazaki's work, often giving us awe inspiring set pieces or even just small moments in the sky. The Wind Rises has those in spades, and if it IS the master's final work, he went out on a good one.

Jiro Horikoshi was a real man, and really did design planes like those shown in the movie, but this is a fictionalized account of his life. We follow Jiro as he finishes school, starts work at an engineering firm and is eventually sent all over the world to study from others. He also meets a girl and falls in love. Though her tuberculosis makes their love seemed doomed from the start, Jiro doesn't care, he just wants to be with her. Much is made in the movie of what is right and wrong, what is worth fighting for and what isn't. Jiro hates war and fighting, he just wants to make airplanes because they "are beautiful dreams".

Jiro gets laughed at when trying to reduce the weight of a plane and he says he thought about taking out the guns. Everyone thinks he's making a joke, but I thought he wasn't, he was almost remarking on how disappointing it is that he has to shoehorn disgusting guns into his beautiful plane. A character in his dreams once asks him  "Do you prefer a world with pyramids, or with no pyramids?". Essentially saying that even though his beautiful designs will be made into death machines by the military, would he rather live in a world without beautiful things? This fits into Jiro's feelings on his love life, and he ultimately decides he would rather have beautiful planes and beautiful love, even if those things might not last.

It's a wonderful movie, one with impressive set pieces like recreating the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, and the resulting carnage as buildings fall, fires blaze, and black smoke darkens the sky. Mother Nature sullies her beautiful things with death sometimes too. Surprising, being a movie about a plane designer, but I didn't feel the joyous freedom of flight that I felt while watching Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (still Miyazaki's greatest work) or Porco Rosso. Maybe because Jiro is more concerned with the plane itself rather than the act of flying. Still there are terrific scenes of flight, just maybe nothing as transcendent as I hoped.

Perhaps the biggest story surrounding the movie has been many journalists anger at a likable protagonist being made of a man who designed planes that killed many Allied soldiers in WWII with no condemnation from Miyazaki. These people, like most controversy pushers, must have not watched the movie I watched. Throughout the movie, Jiro and his best friend and fellow engineer Honjo constantly talk about how backwards Japan is, how poor it is, how they won't win the war. These guys are just engineers, not war mongerers, they deserve no condemnation in my book. Hell, Miyazaki even creates a German man (voiced by Werner Herzog in the English dub, I had a "holy shit, Herzog in a Miyazaki movie is the best thing that's happened to me in 2014" moment when I heard his voice) to tell Jiro that "Japan will burn. Germany will burn too" to beat home the point that war is nasty and ruins its country and people. You can even tell how much relish Herzog has in spitting out his anti-Nazi lines.

Why some have tried to dampen this beautiful movie with controversy is beyond me. It may be often slow moving, but it's gorgeous and wonderful and a fitting end to Miyazaki's extraordinary career if this indeed his curtain call. Personally, I really hope he's coming back for an encore soon.

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