Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Movie Review: The Wind Rises

The Wind Rises
Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki.
Written by: Hayao Miyazaki based on his comic.
Starring: Hideaki Anno (Jirô Horikoshi), Mirai Shida (Kayo Horikoshi), Jun Kunimura (Hattori), Hidetoshi Nishijima (Honjô), Miori Takimoto (Naoko Satomi), Masahiko Nishimura (Kurokawa), Mansai Nomura (Caproni), Steve Alpert (Kastrup), Shinobu Ôtake (Kurokawa's Wife), Morio Kazama (Satomi).

Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises is apparently the animation master’s final film. Yes, he’s said that before, but this time it’s likely true. At 72, he says he’s slowed down and that it took five years to make the film – and if he started one now, it would take even longer, and he may not finish. If this truly is his last film, than it is a fitting way for arguably the greatest director of animation in cinema history to end his career. The film certainly does feel like a final film – the type of film an aging master feels he simply has to make before he dies. The film may not quite be the masterpiece of Spirited Away (2002) or Princess Mononoke (1997) – but it’s still one of his best.

The movie is a heavily fictionalized biopic of Jiro Horikoshi – the visionary aeronautical engineer who helped push Japan to the forefront of airplane technology in the years leading up to WWII. The movie has already come under fire from some who think it is an apology for a man who designed instruments of death – while at the same time, it has come under attack from some in Japan for portraying its military in such a negative light (neither controversy seems to have affected attendance – in Japan, it’s already a huge hit). The first criticism is ridiculous. From the outset, the movie addresses the conflict between those who build planes – and those who use them. The film has a recurring set of dreams, involving Italian airplane designer Caproni, who tells Jiro that “planes are beautiful dreams” and warns against them being used as weapons. Throughout the movie, Jiro is thoroughly uninterested in the military use of his planes – at one point wanting to eliminate guns from his latest fighter to make it lighter, and give it the ability to movie quicker. The movie even ends with Jiro lamenting that none of his beautiful planes made it back from the war (with Caproni saying “there was nothing to come back to”). The second criticism is fairer – Miyazaki certainly doesn’t portray the Japanese military in a positive light (they are basically buffoons), and there are also disturbing elements referencing the thought police – but that’s part of his point in the movie. He has been openly critical of the current government’s plan to rebuild the Japanese military. It certainly didn’t bother me in the least.

The movie charts not  only the leaps in airplane technology spearheaded by Jiro, but also Japan’s transition into being a more modern country. One of the most gripping sequences in the movie happens near the beginning – where an earthquake leads to fires that destroy much of the country. And Japan is still a country where epidemics of TB were still commonplace. Through the course of the movie, the planes Jiro gets built become more modern – and are no longer pulled to the runway by oxen – and the country changes as well. Miyazaki doesn’t shy away from saying that not all these changes were for the better.

In addition to being a movie about planes, the film is also a gentle love story (some critics have already complained it’s too much Love Story for them – but screw the cynics). For much of the movie, Jiro seems lost in his dreams of flight – but then he meets a beautiful young woman (they are brought together by the wind – a recurring motif in the film). They love each other deeply – but she is ill, and he is driven by his work. And yet, they do not let these obstacles stop them. The love story, as obvious as it may be, gives the movie it’s emotional core.

Of course, as with any movie by Miyazaki, the animation in impeccable. In most of his other films, he has created strange mystical creatures, and fantastical worlds, but other than the dreams sequences, Miyazaki doesn’t create anything fantastical this time out. But that doesn’t mean the film isn’t a wonder to behold – it is, from the aforementioned earthquake, to the flying sequences (both real, and in the dream world), and even the quieter moments, Miyazaki’s film is a wonder to behold from start to finish.

In North America, animation is still mainly seen as kids’ stuff. In the past few years, even the consistently excellent Pixar has faltered a little bit, meaning it’s been a few years since I saw an animated film I thought was truly wonderful. While The Wind Rises isn’t quite up to the level of the best Miyazaki has ever made – it’s pretty close. It is easily the best animated film I’ve seen in a number of years – and a fitting way for Miyazaki to end his career.

Note: This review is based on a screening at TIFF 2013, and is posted because apparently the film will be released for an Oscar qualifying run in New York and LA this Friday. The version I saw was in Japanese, with subtitles, which is what is being released this week. The film will apparently go wider sometime in 2014 – when it will have been dubbed into English.

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