Thursday, November 20, 2014

"The Wind Rises": Miyazaki's Disappointing Farewell

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

I don’t feel good about not liking a Hayao Miyazaki movie.  For thirty years, the man has directed some of the greatest animated films of all time, and has single-handedly made anime a world-recognized artform; even the most lay of filmgoers and ignorant of Japanese animation know his name.  And I really wanted to be able to appreciate his final feature film as a capstone to his career, a culmination of what made him such a great entertainer.  Unfortunately, The Wind Rises is a problematic film, both thematically and structurally, and while it retains the superb quality of animation that we have come to expect from Studio Ghibli, it doesn’t retain the same charm we have come to associate with the brand.

The film follows the exploits of Japanese plane designer Jiro Horikoshi in the early 20th century.  He sees a beauty in achieving flight that he recognizes he will never realize due to his bad eyesight, so he devotes his life to constructing the best planes imaginable.  Unlike most Miyazaki films, The Wind Rises takes place entirely in the real world, with fanciful elements restricted to Jiro’s dream adventures with Caproni, an engineer whom he idolizes.  One would think that this would make the film less beautiful when compared to the sprawling fantasy landscapes of Princess Mononoke or Nausicaa, and while definitely less showy, the animation is superb as ever.  Studio Ghibli really knows how to animate fluid movement; watching planes glide through the air, failed designs tearing themselves apart in mid-flight, or even the simple human actions of walking down a street or writing a note is marvelous.  It really makes you appreciate the studio as masters of their craft, to have an ability to take something that could easily have just been mundanely filmed and make it look gorgeous through animation.

However, the film tends to neatly sidestep an issue that I feel it is unfair for it to ignore.  Jiro Horikoshi’s planes were the ones used to make Japanese bomber planes in World War II.  The film acknowledges the coming war and quietly shoves any blame the Japanese may incur for its involvement under the rug.  The Germans are an easy enough target to blame the entirety of the war’s atrocities on, and Jiro is simply an innocent artist who wants to make the beauty of planes.  In one dream sequence, Caproni asks Jiro if he would rather live in a world with or without pyramids, claiming that it is worthwhile to live in a world with great art, even if it comes at the expense of others’ lives and suffering.  I’m sorry, but I don’t buy it.  I recognize that this is a symptom of Japan’s collective denial of their own troubling history, but it does not translate well to an audience that can clearly recognize the unstated ramifications of the film’s lionized hero.

Troubling historical disregard aside, the film itself stumbles through its second half, relying heavily on a love story between Jiro and a one-dimensional love interest to string it along.  It’s very strange to see Miyazaki, a director noted for his films’ strong female characters, reduce the female lead to a symbol of artistic purity for his male protagonist to pine over and enshrine.  It makes the feminist in me cringe, and it brings Jiro’s character arc to a stuttering crawl, extending the film by an unnecessary extra half hour through sheer romantic necessity.

Like I said before, I don’t like not liking this movie.  Hayao Miyazaki directed some of my favorite movies growing up, and was a gateway for my appreciation of anime during my teenage years.  Unfortunately, Miyazaki’s swan song just isn’t up to the lofty standards he’s held himself to in the past, and its faults would make it problematic regardless of which animation studio produced it.

What’s your favorite Miyazaki classic?  Mine’s Spirited Away.  Let me know in the comments below.

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