Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Wind Rises (Kaze Tachinu)














THE WIND RISES (Kaze Tachinu)           B+     
Japan  (126 mi)  2014  d:  Hayao Miyazaki       Official site [United States]

Le vent se lève!                       The wind is rising!
il faut tenter de vivre!             We must try to live!

Le cimetière marin (The Graveyard By The Sea), excerpt by Paul Valéry, 1920

While much has been written about how this is Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki’s final film, his swan song, the last of the hand-drawn animators who painstakingly draws each shot in a world otherwise filled with CGI computer effects, it should also be mentioned that the Studio Ghibli creator, now age 73, has previously announced his retirement seven times, Miyazaki “Not Retiring After All Again”, only to return with an idea for another film.  Through a career that has spanned six decades, enjoying huge commercial and critical success in Japan, PRINCESS MONONOKE (1997) was the highest grossing film in Japanese history until it was eclipsed by TITANIC (1997) that same year, while SPIRITED AWAY (2001) then became the all-time Japanese box office winner while also, along with MONONOKE, winning Best Picture at the Japanese Academy Awards, and was the first film to win an American Academy Award for Best Animated Film.  Part of Miyazaki’s appeal is the personal warmth of his characters, where his protagonists are often strong-willed and independent girls or young women possessing an intelligent curiosity about the world around them, advocating pro-feminist themes, while young male characters may be explorers who are ahead of their time, often showing an intricate relationship with nature and technology.  What’s unique about this film is that the lead character is for the first time an adult, where it doesn’t feature a magical, child fantasy world, but instead is one of the most fiercely provocative, real life dramas to come out of Studio Ghibli, a film set during the prelude to war, yet contains no villains and no bloodshed, where Miyazaki has written a biopic that resembles the life of Jiro Hirokoshi, the Mitsubishi engineer who designed the prototype for the Zero fighter planes, recognizable to World War II veterans as the planes used at Pearl Harbor, but eventually became negatively associated with kamikaze missions.  Like his delightful earlier films CASTLE IN THE SKY (1986) or Porco Rosso (Kurenai no buta) (1992), this film is obsessed with aeronautics, one of Miyazaki’s favorite recurring themes, a constant that reappears throughout his work much like Ozu’s attraction to trains.  This film is constantly expressing various modes of travel, including multiple train sequences, ships seen off in the distance at sea, or airplanes decorating the sky. 

The story begins with Jiro as a young boy who dreams of flying airplanes, who fantasizes having a life interacting with great Italian plane designer Giovanni Battista Caproni, who persuades him to become a designer, not a flyer, becoming close imaginary friends, another recurring theme that continues throughout adulthood, where these dream sequences offer a more playful change of pace.  But the scenic beauty of his imagination turns tragic when the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake causes a firestorm, with much of the city seen ominously burning to the ground, but also causing train derailments, creating mass chaos on the streets of Tokyo, where Jiro heroically saves a young woman (Nahoko) who breaks her leg, making quite an impression on her by carrying her to the safety of her family’s home, but loses contact afterwards when he discovers her entire burnt out neighborhood has been turned to little more than ash and rubble.  This incident parallels the 2011 disaster from Japan’s March 11 Tōhoku earthquake, the most powerful earthquake to ever hit Japan, causing a massive tsunami with 130 foot waves that dangerously wiped out the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, resulting in a meltdown in three of the six nuclear reactors, causing radioactive spillage throughout the region.  The crisis was so humanly devastating, causing nearly 16,000 deaths, more if you include the missing, with structural damage to over a million buildings, that in the aftermath, Miyazaki publicly announced that Studio Ghibli would no longer make fantasy films, but would only consider more realistic stories reflective of our modern times.  This emphasis on realism within a fictional setting allows Miyazaki to develop many of his overriding themes, as Jiro becomes a talented aeronautical engineer, something of a whiz kid, showing the most promise of anyone in his graduating class, where he is welcomed as a budding genius at his new job where the focus is on designing planes that are lighter and stronger.  In this endeavor, which is largely trial and error, he is sent to Germany to examine their metal planes, which are seen as technologically advanced marvels of engineering that are literally light years ahead of the wooden Japanese planes that still fall apart in high winds or high speeds.  The film adds a sinister racial element where Japanese engineers, though paid to visit the aeronautical plant in Germany, are continually forbidden from viewing the latest designs, which are seen as exclusively for Germans only. 

There is an interesting cast of secondary characters, none more eccentric than a strange German man visiting Japan played by the legendary voice of Werner Herzog in the American dubbed version, who among other things confides to Jiro that “Nazi’s are hoodlums,” appropriately named Castorp from Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel The Magic Mountain, while also singing a German cabaret song, “This happens only once, it doesn’t come again,” Das gibts nur einmal, das kommt nicht wieder - YouTube (3:31) from the film THE CONGRESS DANCES (1931) Der Kongreß tanzt produced by the Weimer Ufa Studios, before eventually being chased out of the country at the end by the Japanese secret service.  What strikes one about Jiro is the way he passionately throws himself into his work, offering quite a bit of mechanical detail about rivets and aircraft design, where he’s almost always seen with slide rule in hand, off to the side somewhere crunching the numbers, where his meticulous obsession with work mirrors Miyazaki’s own rigorous work ethic at Studio Ghibli, and where the aircraft designers are portrayed more as serious artists than mere engineers.  The autobiographical nature of the work is perhaps its most endearing attribute (Miyazaki’s father owned an airplane factory), becoming a modernist aeronautical tale of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  The sheer number of different airplane designs on display in this film is like a joyful trip through an aviation fantasyland, often elevated with uplifting Vivaldi-like classical music from Joe Hisaishi as they soar across the skies, where it feels like being in the presence of Da Vinci’s art studio.  Perhaps the most memorable flying sequence is Jiro’s playful fun with a simple paper airplane that he throws through the air to connect with the rediscovered love of his life, Nahoko, who is seriously afflicted with tuberculosis, so remains confined to her room and out of reach. While this developing romance is an essential part of the film, wonderfully established early on with a windblown parasol, culminating with an impromptu wedding sequence late in the film that is beautifully conceived in its utter simplicity, yet it also sets the stage for tragic loss to come, perhaps foreshadowed earlier during Jiro’s trip to Germany when he hears the sad and achingly sorrowful sounds of Schubert’s Winterreise (Winter Journey) coming from an apartment window.  

One of the major conflicts expressed throughout is how the innocence of creation and the marvel of invention are often at odds with how these inventions are used.  Jiro is driven by a deep love for flying, where throughout his life he’s driven to create the most brilliantly designed flying machine that is utter grace and beauty in the sky, but there’s also a tragic element attached to it when the Japanese Imperial Army uses his invention to bomb Pearl Harbor.  In one of the most poignantly disturbing images of the film, after experiencing such joy at his successful creation, he’s also forced to react in horror and anguish when he sees a sky filled with literally hundreds of airplanes, “Not a single plane came back.  That’s what it means to lose a war.”  The eloquence of this complex moral quandary is not lost on the viewer, as it’s a chilling reminder of the inevitable intersection between the inspired passion of creative art and the heartless nature of exploitive commercialism, where it’s not the product, but the crass corporate use of a product that often leads to regret and personal tragedy.  Hirokoshi’s passion for flight was abducted by the megalomaniacal forces of militarism, where this beautifully realized and thought-provoking picture of an unspoiled, prewar Japan places front and center the difficulty and enormous sadness associated with maintaining Miyazaki’s own pacifist beliefs, where the Edenesque utopian beauty expressed in his glorious creations can be shattered in an instant by chaos and annihilation, including natural disasters, where there is an impermanence in all things, and a deeply felt understanding that behind every life lies death.

Miyazaki’s view of this significant era in Japanese history has apparently aroused the attention of the left for Miyazaki’s apparent whitewash of history, claiming the director ignores the impact of Hirokoshi’s creation which was responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths, while also drawing the wrath of conservative Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, an ultra nationalist whose avowed intentions include revisionist history, expanding the role of the military for the first time since WWII, and even rewriting the Japanese Constitution, from J. Dana Stuster in a July 23, 2013 article from Foreign Policy magazine, Japanese Nationalists Attack Animation Master's New Film - Passport:

[Since] earlier this year, Abe has tried to reframe Japan’s role in World War II: He’s questioned “whether it is proper to say that Japan ‘invaded’ its neighbors” and questioned the 1995 official apology to “comfort women,” the conscription prostitutes provided to Japanese troops during the war. Abe is currently pushing for a revision of the Japanese constitution that would not only ease the country’s prohibition on military aggression, but would also enshrine the Emperor as the head of state and compel “respect” for symbols of Japan’s pre-war heyday.

In interviews for the release of the film, Miyazaki sought to explain why this isn’t a nationalistic piece of flag waving along the lines favored by Abe’s supporters, some of whom favor banning the film and have called Miyazaki “unpatriotic” and “anti-Japanese,” and has instead shifted the focus of Studio Ghibli from producing fantasies to a new direction where animé has an opportunity to challenge existing policies of social change:

“If I had been born a bit earlier, I would have been a gunkoku shonen (Militarist Youth),” Miyazaki writes… But instead, he grew up in a family in which his father went from building airplane components during the war to opening a jazz club to cater to American soldiers during the postwar occupation. Removed from the “hysteria” of the war years, Miyazaki writes, he “had a strong feeling in my childhood that we had ‘fought a truly stupid war’.”

Growing up in the shadow of Japan’s defeat, Miyazaki strongly opposes Abe’s plans to rewrite the Japanese Constitution in order to revive a drumbeat for militarism and a devotion to the Emperor, claiming:

It goes without saying that I am opposed to revising the Constitution. That is something that should never be done.

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