Friday, March 14, 2014

The Wind Rises: This film soars

The Wind Rises (2013) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rating: Rated PG-13, for dramatic content and disturbing images

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.14.14

Animation fans who think of Hayao Miyazaki’s films solely in terms of fantasy realms and whimsical (sometimes dangerous) supernatural creatures — 2001’s Academy Award-winning Spirited Away having much to do with this genre affiliation — are in for a surprise.

To his amazement, young Jirô (running in foreground) seems to share his dreams with
the flamboyant Caproni, a famed Italian aeronautical engineer who designs planes for
the sheer joy of mechanical artistry. Can a bespectacled country boy hope to do the
same, when he achieves adulthood?
Quite a surprise.

Although The Wind Rises opens with a surreal quality that feels like vintage Miyazaki, focusing on a young country boy smitten by the rhapsodic magic of aircraft, this film is grounded in historical fact: much more biography than imaginative fancy. The year is 1918, the boy is Jirô Horikoshi, and he often finds himself in plane-laden dreams that seem to be shared by famed Italian aeronautical designer Giovanni Battista Caproni, whose bombers played a significant role in World War I ... but who also has far-reaching concepts for peacetime passenger aircraft.

This is mere prologue: the spark that ignites Jirô’s determination to become an aircraft engineer. A few years pass; having reached young adulthood (now voiced, in this dubbed American version, by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Jirô boards a train in order to attend college in Tokyo, little realizing that Miyazaki — employing the artistic license so beloved by writers who play with time and place — has orchestrated an appointment with fate.

What later came to be known as the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 strikes just as Jirô’s train reaches the city outskirts. He meets and rescues Nahoko Satomi (voiced by Emily Blunt), re-uniting her with family while firestorms sweep through the city and surrounding areas. Without much of a backward glance, Jirô then pushes on to his university, where he and new friend Honjô (John Krasinski) do their best to rescue books and other valuable property.

Time passes anew; Jirô and Honjô join the Mitsubishi engineering company in 1927, where they’re constantly browbeaten by their grumpy, imperious boss, Kurokawa (Martin Short). Even so, Jirô’s innovative concepts quickly catch the attention of senior designer Hattori (Mandy Patinkin).

These initial years at Mitsubishi unfold against Japan’s Great Depression, which forces the seriously understaffed and overworked Mitsubishi engineers to labor under significant handicaps. Jirô revels in the work for its own sake, having no outside life to distract him; Honjô supplies some outer-world context by lamenting that their primitive conditions are keeping them 10 years behind superior German designers.

By way of illustrating this disparity, Mitsubishi’s test aircraft must be hauled onto fields by oxen.

At about this point, viewers with reasonable historical backgrounds will grow uneasy, aware of where all this must be leading. Miyazaki doesn’t shy from the grim forward march of inevitability; indeed, he embraces it, challenging us to consider the degree — if any — to which a brilliant engineer should consider how his work will be put to use ... and whether he bears any responsibility for the aftermath.

That’s the core moral: Are artists to be blamed for the corruption of inspired beauty?

It’s an unsettling thought, and American viewers are particularly apt to be uncomfortable with this romanticized, even lyrical portrait of a man who — to this day — remains a figure of controversy, even in his own country.

Although Miyazaki’s script doesn’t shy from political subtext and disquieting references to the next upcoming war — Jirô and Honjô’s collaborative visit to Germany is particularly grim — the narrative mutes this unsettling undertone by re-uniting Jirô with Nahoko. Their budding romance amplifies a poetic element that this film borrows from Japanese author Tatsuo Hori, whose impressionistic, atmospheric works dwelt on melancholy and death.

Indeed, Miyazaki identifies his film as a tribute to both Horikoshi and Hori. The title comes from one of the latter’s novels, itself inspired by a line from French poet, essayist and philosopher Paul Valéry: “Le vent se lève, it faut tenter de vivre (The wind is rising; we must try to live).” All three — Horikoshi, Hori and Valéry — were contemporaries who witnessed the build-up to World War II.

If all this sounds grim and depressing, that’s not entirely fair. The real-world backdrop notwithstanding, Miyazaki’s film is more poignant than dreary, thanks both to Jirô’s obvious nobility (however naïve) and the tender bond he shares with Nahoko. Their joyous reunion, hasty courtship and touchingly unusual marriage set the stage for a relationship arc that’s every bit as powerful as the montage prologue to 2009’s Up.

Given the care with which Miyazaki selects and blends all the elements in his films, however, it’s a shame that we American viewers are forced to settle for dubbed, English-speaking talent. Experiencing a Miyazaki film is akin to entering another world; genuine effort is required — a conscious slowing down of expectation — to properly embrace this quieter, gentler storytelling style.

This isn’t the rapid-fire sight gags and smash-cut editing of today’s Hollywood animators, who cater to 21st century viewers with short attention spans. Just as a few chapters often are required to settle into the rhythm of reading (for example) a novel by Charles Dickens, one must be willing to welcome Miyazaki’s old-style animated elegance.

So while the domestic talent employed for this film’s American release does a good job, their voices clearly lack the qualities that (most notably) Hideaki Anno and Miori Takimoto delivered, to further characterize Miyazaki’s vision of Jirô and Nahoko.

That said, Gordon-Levitt grants Jirô a credible blend of confidence, determination and tactful savvy; Jirô is much more adept at finessing ill-tempered companions than Honjô. Krasinski gives the latter a strong, down-to-earth quality that contrasts nicely with Jirô’s dreaminess. Stanley Tucci is well cast as the larger-than-life Caproni of Jirô’s dreams, and Werner Herzog is appropriately mysterious as Castorp, a gentleman who encounters Jirô at a mountain resort, and who clearly knows much about the unfolding situation in Western Europe.

I’m less satisfied with the female characters. Emily Blunt’s voice is too spirited and self-assured for a character (Nahoko) who clearly needs to sound as delicate as she looks. Similarly, Mae Whitman plays the “petulant brat” card much too shrilly, as Jirô’s younger sister Kayo.

Martin Short is little but broad comic relief as Kurokawa, but that’s not entirely his fault; Miyazaki clearly intended this character, with his Moe Howard haircut, to be the story’s token buffoon. This may be Miyazaki’s sole artistic mistake, because this narrative absolutely doesn’t need a buffoon. Indeed, Kurokawa’s exaggerated antics are a distraction, ripping us out of a given scene’s drama ... although the character does redeem himself, somewhat, in the third act.

Joe Hisaishi’s score is as lovely and lyrical as the lush countryside backdrops against which much of this film’s action takes place. The music’s nationality shifts according to the characters involved in a given scene: A slight Italian edge creeps in during Jirô’s dream-time with Caproni, and a Parisian lilt is detected during the early scenes with Nahoko and her young, French-speaking caregiver.

Hisaishi inserts stirring German marches during that geographical detour, and also when Castorp shares his perceptions of developing tensions elsewhere in the world. Mostly, of course, the music reflects the story’s primarily Japanese setting, and deftly augments the emotional tone Miyazaki desires from a given scene. This collaborative elegance comes as no surprise, since he and Hisaishi have worked together many times before, from My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service to Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo ... and, of course, Spirited Away.

Longtime Miyazaki fans need no encouragement to see this film, and they’ll undoubtedly share the enthusiasm of Japanese viewers who made The Wind Rises their country’s highest-grossing film of 2013. I’m less certain mainstream Americans, who — under the best of circumstances — rarely greet a new Miyazaki film with the same delight afforded a new Pixar release.

Then, too, the solemn narrative and inescapable political theme will be a further challenge; as a nation, Americans aren’t renowned for their ability to place themselves in a former enemy’s shoes, no matter how much time has passed. I can well imagine right-wing radio shriekers denouncing Disney for distributing such as “blatantly anti-American” film, which would be highly ironic ... given that some of Miyazaki’s nationalist countrymen have similarly condemned his film as “anti-Japanese.”

All of which suggests that if an artist equally offends those on both sides of a given argument, he must be doing a good job.

And none of which has the slightest bearing on the imaginative, emotional— and, yes, informative — delights to be experienced while watching this ambitious film. I still regard Spirited Away as Miyazaki’s ultimate masterpiece, but The Wind Rises is an impressive, often breathtaking departure for a 73-year-old filmmaker who shows no signs of slowing down.

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