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REVIEW: Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises”

REVIEW: Miyazaki's "The Wind Rises"

In The Wind Rises
(receiving its Oscar-qualifying run in New York and LA this week), director Hayao Miyazaki once again carries
the viewer through rapturously beautiful fantasies, hard-won pleasures and
poignant sorrows. The title is taken from a line of Paul Valery, “Le vent se leve, il faut tenter de vivre” (“The wind rises, one must strive to live”), which is also the title of the
novel by Tatsuo Hori that partially inspired the film.

In place of the wise-cracking fantasies and fairy tales
Americans expect from animation, Miyazaki offers a biopic of Jiro Horikoshi,
who designed the A6M Zero Fighter for Mitsubishi in the early days of WW II.

Miyazaki quickly established Jiro as a kind, intelligent boy,
who’s obsessed with flying, but knows he’s too near-sighted to be a pilot. In his
dreams, Jiro meets the Italian engineer and airplane designer Count Giovanni
Caproni, who assures Jiro he can realize his ambition of becoming an
aeronautical engineer. Although separated by age and distance, the man and the
boy agree that airplanes are “beautiful dreams.” But they also recognize that
their exquisite machines will be perverted into instruments of destruction.

As a student, Koji arrives in Tokyo as the Great Kanto
Earthquake of 1923 strikes. During the ensuing chaos, he helps a young girl and
her maid get to safety, using his slide rule as an improvised splint. At
college, he never loses his obsession with airplanes. Eating a cheap lunch of mackerel
in the student cafeteria, Koji realizes that a fish bone suggests the ideal form
for a wing strut.

After graduating, he joins his best friend Honjo at
Mitsubishi, designing planes under the benevolent but harried chief engineer Kurokawa.
When Jiro’s initial designs prove unsuccessful, he takes a vacation at a
mountain hotel, where he meets a young painter. Naoko Satomi is the girl he
helped during the earthquake years earlier. She’s grown into a lovely young
woman, but she suffers from the tuberculosis that killed her mother.

Their ill-starred romance plays against Jiro’s struggle to
create a plane that embodies his dream, and her premature death can be seen as
a symbol of the destruction of Jiro’s hope for its peaceful use. The juxtaposition
of a love of flying and the bitter reality that these wondrous machines will be
used to destroy lives and property figures prominently in Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Howl’s Moving Castle.

Unlike many recent American films with their endless roller
coaster rides, The Winds Rises is not
focused on speed. The Zero fighter exceeded the specifications the Japanese
Navy requested, but Miyazaki concentrates on the magic of flight. Instead of
careening the audience racing through the sky, he enables them to savor the
sensation of escaping the bonds of gravity to soar over the landscape, savoring
its beauty. The result approaches visual poetry, and the sensation is
heightened by Miyazaki’s restrained pacing.

While at the hotel, Jiro uses his engineering skills to
fashion an elegant paper airplane that he tosses at Naoko’s balcony as a
declaration of his affection. The first few times he throws it, the plane falls
short or slips through her fingertips, and Jiro crashes through the shrubbery
to retrieve it. In an American film, Naoko would of catch the plane on its first
launch or Jiro would go through an exaggerated series of crotch-banging falls
that ended with him landing in a bucket of paint. The believable awkwardness of
the scene humanizes the characters and wins the viewer’s sympathy for their
doomed affection. 

Will The Wind Rises
find the audience it deserves here? Critics in Japan and America have noted
that the film is aimed at a more adult audience than Miyazaki’s other features.
(The director said he made Porco Rosso
for tired businessmen to watch on their way home from foreign trips and was surprised
by its popularity with children.) PC commentators have complained that the
characters in Wind Rises smoke too
many cigarettes, although portraying them as non-smokers would be inaccurate
and anachronistic. 

American audiences may find the idea of an animated bio pic
odd, although there have been others in Japan—notably Shoji Kawamori’s Spring and Chaos, a cartoon life of Kenji Miayazawa, the beloved author of “The Night on the
Galactic Railway.” But the subject of The Wind Rises presents more serious challenges for the film in the
US. The Japanese Imperial Navy used the Zero Fighter in China and the Pacific
in the early 40’s with devastating results. Will American viewers accept a film
about its designer – especially the older membership of the Motion Picture Academy
who remember the War?

Cultural questions aside, The Wind Rises is not only the best animated film released to date this
year, but one of the best films released this year. If it has the unhappy distinction
of being Hayao Miyazaki’s last feature, it shows the director at the height of
his powers making a premature but glorious exit.

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