Anime On the Big Screen: “The Wind Rises”

windrisesVenue: Dendy Cinemas, Level 2, North Quarter, Canberra Centre, 148 Bunda Street, Canberra City, ACT
Date: Sunday 2 March 2014
Distributor: Madman Entertainment
Format: Digital Projection, Japanese with some German and Italian Dialogue with English subtitles
Length: 126 minutes
Production Date: 2013
Currently on Home Video in English (as of writing): No

It was only a month ago that the third “Madoka Magica” movie came to town. Now this week we have a proper theatrical release of what is supposedly the last feature film Hayao Miyazaki will direct; “The Wind Rises”. I have to admit that since “Spirited Away”, I have been put off by a lot of his works. After “Princess Mononoke”, I felt that Miyazaki’s films became rather surreal and a little nonsensical. For instance what’s up with the black goopy creatures that seem to inhabit every single one of his films since “Mononoke”? While I do prefer the older Miyazaki films to modern era Miyazaki, I still enjoy his newer work. I felt that his last film, “Ponyo”, was a return to form for him. It was an excellent children’s film.

After a bit of an ordeal trying to get into civic (why are there seemingly road closures for events every bloody Sunday in this town?), I got my ticket and went in. I must note at this point that like the US, this film is being released in both subtitled and dubbed formats. Interestingly the cinema here is playing the dubbed version twice daily, while the subtitled version is screening three times a day. That says a lot about our town. Like a lot of these events, there was real mix of patrons. There were a couple of young guys continually blabbing on about games, five otakuish types, a father with a teenage daughter and the rest were a mix of older and young people. In all about 25 people showed up for a mid morning Sunday screening. The trailers before the feature were all Hollywood CG animated kids films. There seems to be such a wide gulf between films made for Japanese kids and western kids. The Hollywood stuff is crammed full of slapstick and crappy pop culture jokes for the adults, while generally the Japanese stuff focuses more on the story and the characters and are truly “family films”. It’s not that I don’t like Hollywood CG films, it’s just a lot of them are a bit predictable and sameish. I note that unlike the other trailers screened, the Dreamworks film “Mr. Peabody & Sherman”, did not get a single laugh out of the audience. Not a murmur. Oh dear.

As you may be aware, this film follows the life of Jiro Horikoshi who is most (in)famous for designing the Mitsubishi A6M Zero. The film opens in a small Japanese town some time after WWI, where we first meet Jiro as a young boy in his family home asleep. He dreams of climbing onto the roof of his house and taking off in his own plane with bird-like wings. After flying around town and surprising many of the townsfolk, he is attacked by a strange creature-like airship and it’s payload of bombs. His plane is destroyed and he awakes just as he is about to hit the ground. At school he borrows an English language aviation magazine from a classmate. With his younger sister he translates the magazine using an English dictionary. Enthralled at the article on Italian aircraft designer Giovanni Caproni, that night in another dream, Jiro meets Caproni who invites him onto one of his planes. Jiro and Caproni talk about aircraft and Caproni realises it is a dream they both share. Caproni suggests to Jiro that he should build planes because his eyesight isn’t good enough to be a pilot. The next day Jiro declares to his mother that he will become an aviation engineer.

We fast forward to Jiro as a young man studying at university. Jiro is riding a crowded train back to Tokyo after a trip home and decides to get out of the carriage and stand on the steps outside the front door. There he meets a younger girl called Naoko Satomi who saves his hat from being blown off the train. It is 1 September 1923, the day of the Great Kanto earthquake. It hits just the train just as it makes it to the outskirts of the city. After the earthquake the passengers hurriedly exit the train. Naoko’s maid who was accompanying her has hurt her leg. Jiro thoughtfully helps the couple out by using his slide rule as a splint for her leg and accompanies them back to Naoko’s family house in Ueno. Jiro then rushes back to the university where he meets his friend Kiro Honjo. The earthquake has caused several fires in the city, including the university. Jiro and Honjo attempt to save as many reference books and documents from the burning engineering faculty. In amongst the documents and books, Jiro finds a postcard with an image of Caproni on it. Jiro daydreams that Caproni is encouraging him on.

After Jiro graduates from university he and Honjo find employment at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. He is lauded as a genius engineer but is bullied a little by the foreman, Kurokawa, who tests him by designing a component for an already built prototype. Jiro impresses Kurokawa enough that he is assigned to the Falcon Project, in which Mitsubishi is competing to build a fighter for the defence forces. But lady luck is not shining on them and the prototype crashes to the ground and a rival company wins the bid. With no projects on the cards, the company send their top engineers, including Jiro and Honjo, to the Junkers factory in Germany. Despite the fact Mitsubishi will be buying licences to make Junkers aircraft in Japan, the guards are somewhat hostile and protective of the aircraft. After Jiro witnesses a Junkers factory worker being chased by the secret police later that night, he questions if he is following the right path. In a dream Caproni tells Jiro not to doubt himself and that he has a small window of opportunity to make an impact on the world.

In the late 1930’s, Jiro becomes the chief designer for a new fighter plane for the navy. It is a culmination of many years of hard work. While the initial moments of the test flight seem to indicate it is a success, the plane crashes to the ground. Dejected, Jiro heads to a secluded resort. There he discovers that Naoko is also staying there. After the earthquake in 1923, he attempted to track her down, but her house was burnt to the ground and he could find no trace of her. He tells her that since he first met her had constantly thought of her. A romance blossoms over the next few days and eventually he asks her father for her hand in marriage. However Naoko has tuberculosis and tells him she won’t marry until she has recovered.

This is quite an odd film to be honest. It’s based upon Miyazaki’s manga which was serialised in Model Graphix magazine from 2009. The manga itself is in turn based upon a late 1930’s novel with the same title by Hori Tatsuo. But oddly that novel isn’t about Jiro Horikoshi. It’s about a woman who has tuberculosis and is living in a sanatorium in Nagano. Why Miyazaki has grafted that story on to the life of Jiro Horikoshi is beyond me. It’s the biggest problem this film has. Jiro seems to be continually obsessed with aircraft. It’s only in the second half of the film that Naoko returns to the film. Outside the few scenes they’re together, Jiro doesn’t give the impression he thinks about her at all. He gives off the impression of being cold and mechanical. Partly to blame is the bizarre casting of “Evangelion” director Hideaki Anno as Jiro. Against the other professional actors in the film Anno sounds monotonous and flat. Only during the final scene of the film does his voice show any real emotion. There were also a couple of plot points in the film which made no sense whatsoever. For example German expat Castorp (played by Steve Alpert who heads up Ghibli’s international division) appears at the resort apparently to give advice to Jiro and to criticise the Nazi regime. Later we discover he is wanted by the Japanese secret service who are also apparently watching Jiro becuase of his previous contact with him. Because of this, Kurokawa offers Jiro refuge in his house. However this plot point is never explained in any further detail or followed up. Which is quite odd because Jiro’s designing the nation’s fighter planes. The film is already quite long as it is, and these scenes could have easily been snipped without any consequence.

While the film is clearly about Jiro’s obsession with aircraft, the elephant in the room probably should be addressed. I’m really surprised the media has not made more fuss about the film’s subject matter. Apparently Miyazaki wanted to make a sequel to “Ponyo” but Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki convinced him to make this film. I’m not sure why Miyazaki listened. The growing fascism in Japan (and Germany) during the 1920’s and 1930’s is touched upon in the film but there seems to be no effort made to connect these events with Jiro’s work. There is practically nothing shown of the death and destruction the Mitsubishi A5M and the Mitsubishi A6M Zero caused, nor the fact they were built using slave labour. Ironically in one of dream sequences Caproni asks Jiro if he would like to live in a world where the Pyramids weren’t built. I don’t know if this Miyazaki making a subtle nod how these planes were made or not. I suspect it isn’t and it’d be a shame if Miyazaki couldn’t see the irony in that line of dialogue. Compare how fascism and war were treated and depicted in “Porco Rosso” to this film.

Putting aside the those problems with the film, as per usual there are moments of Miyazaki magic. The dream sequences are absolutely stunning. They show off Miyazaki’s fascination and love of flight and aircraft. Another great sequence is the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake. Mixed into the audio of this sequence are human vocalisations which make the quake seem like a living, breathing entity. The aircraft sounds, both in the dream sequences and “reality”, receive the same treatment as well, though it’s a bit more subtle. I found that element of the film a bit odd because Miyazaki is a complete plane nut and I expected him to use the real sounds of these aircraft. At times an effort is made to show the humanity in Jiro. Upon seeing the Junkers hangers, Jiro joking asks where their Oxen are, as Oxen are used to pull the prototype aircraft to the runway at Mitsubishi, a sore point for Honjo who feels the Japanese are decades behind the west.

I noted that as the lights came up in the theatre, there wasn’t as much as a murmur from the audience. They seemed a little stunned. I think I can understand the reaction. It just doesn’t seem to flow naturally as a film. The two parts of the film, Jiro’s life story and Naoko’s illness, don’t really meld together well at all. Despite Miyazaki’s fondness for strong female characters, Naoko doesn’t have much depth at all (and the other women in the film are just bit players). The only thing the audience really knows about Naoko is that she’s a sickly woman. She’s not involved in his work or even encourages him or takes note of it. As a result the two stories really don’t seem to connect. The romance side of the plot isn’t all that interesting or engaging either. In the few scenes of them together it felt really contrived and false. I just couldn’t believe the way the relationship was unfolding. In the end the film is really about a monotonous voiced aeronautical engineer who designs a couple of planes for the Japanese navy and has a seemingly not very deep relationship with a woman who is at death’s door. It’s truly a strange film. In the end Miyazaki tries to show that Jiro is remorseful for the aircraft he has designed, but I thought came off as a bit hollow. It’s almost as if there is more sorrow for the aircraft than for the human suffering those aircraft caused.

Looking this film, you really have to wonder what the future holds for Studio Ghibli. I thought “Arrietty the Borrower” was kind of average and “Up On Poppy Hill” was a bit dry to say the least. Compare those two films with the work of Mamoru Hosoda. His films are always set in the modern era and are quite fun and engaging, truly “family films”. Ghibli seems old fashioned in comparison. Amusingly Miyazaki practically drummed Hosoda out of Studio Ghibli after several failed attempts to get his version of “Howl’s Moving Castle” approved by the studio. He eventually quit and Miyazaki took over as director of the film. Now with Hayao Miyazaki not making feature films, all you have left at the studio is the somewhat mediocre son, Goro Miyazaki, and Isao Takahata who only makes a film once in a blue moon and he isn’t getting any younger (though I am really looking forward to “The Tale of Princess Kaguya”). You have to admit that their roster of directors doesn’t look very strong.

I can put aside the bloody and painful history of the machines Jiro designed and accept this film as a story of a guy who loved aircraft. But it’s a story that isn’t particularly told well. The two separate halves (Jiro’s and Naoko’s) really don’t mesh together well. I think the real problem is that the audience isn’t given enough information about Naoko and their relationship isn’t really explored enough. She doesn’t seem close to him or his work and the courtship felt false a bit silly to me. I don’t know why Miyazaki didn’t just excise her completely from the script and concentrate on Jiro. But I have to admit the scenes which show Jiro’s love for aircraft are just magical. However those scenes really didn’t make up for the rest of the film. I can only give this movie 6 out of 10. For me “The Wind Rises” is the most disappointing film in Miyazaki’s long career.

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