Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Editorial: The Wind Rises (Part 2)

Previously on the SDP, I editorialised on Hayao Miyazaki's animated film The Wind Rises, which I had not even seen at the time.  Well, now I have, and further developments have forced me back on my virtual soapbox.

Let's take a trip back a month, to the 86th Academy Awards.  (Or look it up on Wikipedia if you can't be bothered to find a time machine.)  And the winner of the Best Animated Feature award goes to... Frozen!  Oh, you mean the new Disney film?  Yeah, that was awesome, wasn't it?  Worth every bit of the sensation it caused in our culture!  Let's see, what other nominees did it beat out?  Despicable Me 2?  Bah.  The Croods?  Meh.  If it weren't for Disney and company, I'd say the animation industry is finished.

...?  What's this?  Something called The Wind Rises was also nominated?  Wow, you think the Academy would gravitate to something like this, like they do with the live-action films.  And this situation is no outlier, either; I have disagreed with their decisions many times before:
  • 80th Academy Awards (2007): The winner was Pixar's Ratatouille.  Among the nominees, I would've preferred Persepolis.  Or Satoshi Kon's Paprika, which was not even nominated.  Hell, I would've given the nod to The Simpsons Movie (also not nominated) before Ratatouille!
  • 82nd Academy Awards (2009): The winner was Pixar's Up.  Among the nominees, I would've preferred The Secret of Kells or Disney's The Princess and the Frog.
  • 84th Academy Awards (2011): The winner was Rango.  Among the nominees... gotta be honest, nothing really stood out to me this go-around.  Maybe Chico & Rita...?
You may have noticed a pattern that I prefer to advocate non-American animation, as evidenced by the trend of Persepolis (France), The Secret of Kells (Ireland/France/Belgium), and Chico & Rita (Spain).  They are not burdened by the "Animation Age Ghetto" that has become ingrained in the American concsiousness.  We, as in the general populace of my country, regard animation as no more than a commodity for a purely child audience.  It should be no surprise, then, that I hold anime productions from Japan in much the same regard.  But despite 2013's award having precendence, this was the straw which broke the proverbial camel's back.  Need I remind you, ladies and gentlemen, that The Wind Rises was to be the final film directed by Hayao Miyazaki, by then aged into his 70s.  Furthermore, the whole of Studio Ghibli announced it would go on (hopefully temporary) hiatus, upon the completion of their latest announced projects.  So, watching the film with that context alone is bittersweet enough, without the added burden of knowing it would not be recognised with all the honours it deserved.

Miyazaki-sama and Studio Ghibli have won in this category only once before, with 2002's Spirited Away (in, admittedly, an otherwise weak batch of nominees).  Furthermore, The Wind Rises has far more serious, reality-grounded subject matter that one doesn't normally associate with animation.  If it were a live-action film competing against others, I get the feeling it might have stood a better chance.  But no, because we're all too chicken-[noun] to venture out of our comfort zone, we bestow praise upon the mediocre while the true cutting edge is marginalised and forgotten.  

So yeah, you know how there's a running gag that it's the more artsy films which do best at the Oscars?  Well if that's true, it sure as Sean Connery ain't true in the animation department!  To be fair, the Best Animated Feature award doesn't get as much buzz and speculation as the general categories do.  But that just raises the same problem in a different light: we don't treat animation seriously enough to give it the same attention as live-action filmmaking.  But enough about that.  I suppose the question remaining is: Did Frozen really deserve the award?  Let's answer the question with a couple of brief reviews.

First, The Wind Rises.  Whilst my previous article on the subject was focused on its politics, I'm willing to chuck that all aside for fear of repeating myself.  The film is a fictionalised biography of airplane designer Jiro Horikoshi, with elements of author Tatsuo Hori thrown in for good measure.  As he is portrayed in this film, Horikishi-san grew up in a Japan struggling to catch up with the other major world industries.  During his youth, he starts having dreams wherein he interacts with a mister Giovanni Caproni, an Italian airplane designer, and vows to follow in his footsteps.  Through these dreams -- which, might I add, punch up the plot with a much-valued touch of whimsy -- Jiro's motives are revealed: all he wants to do is develop something which his country can be proud of.  Yes, his planes, the Mitsubishi A5M and (not seen in the film) A6M "Zero" were used by a horriffic war machine, but he had no direct desire for that.  Sometimes, the most controversial inventions in this world were simply products of altruism.

Interspersed with all this, he meets a girl named Naoko in the aftermath of the 1923 Kanto earthquake.  They reunite years later and make plans for marriage, only to discover that she has contracted tuberculosis and may not be long for this world.  This being the case, they make the most of their romance.  I don't want to call it boring, because that would only react poorly on my attention span.  I'll just say that their choice of two interwoven yet independent storylines doesn't make for good dramatic flow.  But who am I to say what stories should or shouldn't do?  At least taken on their own, these stories are teriffic.  I'll conclude by giving The Wind Rises a score of 95% (A) and a Dragon Award, and saying that, just barely, I respect it more than I like it.

And now, Frozen.  Our story opens with a pair of sister princesses, Anna and Elsa, the latter of whom has the power to control snow and ice.  But after accidentally injuring Anna with such, their parents decide to wipe Anna's memories of the affair, and lock up Elsa until her coronation as queen.  During the affair, Elsa's powers slip out, she runs away, and Anna gives chase in the hopes of talking some sense into here.  I'm not gonna lie, this film starts off on a real strong note.  To see what I mean, check out one of the opening songs, "Do You Want To Build A Snowman", which contrasts Anna's optimism and Elsa's fears.  But does Frozen follow through on this initial momentum?

Thinking back to another Disney animated feature, I remember recently watching 1996's The Hunchback of Notre Dame for the first time in years.  Having since kicked off this very blog and honed my critical mind, I fell in love for what this movie did, and I would've awarded it a perfect score -- but for the incongruous comic relief forced upon us by the little gargoyles.  I was afraid Frozen would suffer a similar dichotomy, and it does, although to a smaller degree.  When the film focuses on Elsa's inner conflict, it does a good job at that.  I sometimes wish it would focus on that instead of diverting our attention with characters such as the animate snowman Olaf (although I must admit I found his schtick, his self-destructive longing for warm things, to be genuinely funny), and with the Anna-Hans-Kristoff long-distance love triangle.  While I'm nitpicking, the ending is a tad cheesy, the villain reveal is rather obviously telegraphed halfway into the film, and none of the musical numbers stuck with me.  Oh, except "Let It Go" -- that was awesome.  Still, what Frozen does well, it does wonderfully.  I think I can sleep soundly after giving it a score of 85% (B-) and saying that, just barely, I like it more than I respect it.

So having compared the two films, I have to admit I'm comfortable with the Best Animated Feature award going to either one or the other.  ...At least, that's what I would have said before I chanced upon this little article from the website Cartoon Bomb 1 (original source: Hollywood Reporter 2).  Out of seven judges interviewed, three voted for Frozen because it was the only movie they cared to watch, and the other four abstained from voting for similar reasons.  And I'm like...  I'm... shocked and appalled.  I can't even bring myself to do another one of those Atomic F-Bombs; that's how stunned I am.  We're talking a mental Blue Screen of Death here.  And it wasn't even a case of bribery or some other corruption -- at least I would've accepted that.  But nope, they just couldn't be arsed!  I first heard about this report from a piece of The Wind Rises fanart on deviantART. 3  I had the following conversation with the artist who made it:
SpyHunter29rtil, regarding the Academy's open-quote decision end-quote, have you considered making a petition asking for a re-vote?  Yeah, the Devil's Advocate in me wonders if this is the point where the fan's sense of entitlement has gone too far, but screw that guy!  Wouldn't you want it just for the sake of them doing their job properly?  And if they did do a re-vote having given all the films their fare share and Frozen still comes out on top, then I'll accept that.

But until then, the day I heard about this leak was one of the saddest days I can remember, second only to when Mega Man Legends 3 got cancelled.  But that's another story.  And for what it's worth, I hear the general Best Picture award didn't fare much better, no disrespect to 12 Years a Slave (I assume).

rtil: there's not much point in having a re-vote when some academy members simply refuse to see the films they are supposed to be voting on. i think the best thing to do is just not pay attention to the oscars and let them have them pat themselves on the back for their sham award show.
At the time, I had accepted rtil's response, but even now, the desire to change the world in this regard still burns in my heart.  ...Of course, such fires would no doubt just end up doused by my own laziness, so forget about it.  Oh well, I guess I'll just sit here and brood in the discontent brought upon by my displeasure for the Animation Age Ghetto, which I may or may not have brought up before.  See, if we as a culture would just treat animated features with the same respect as their live-action counterparts, we wouldn't be in this predicament, and The Wind Rises may very well have won the Oscar it deserved.  But such is the world we live in that, if the Hollywood studios are an accurate representation of the market they serve, all we want are the same rehashed fairy tales over and over again, without any acknowledgement that maybe, just maybe, some of us have grown out of them.

But as I said about Pitbull, of all people, when you do the same thing over and over, you nonetheless hone some sort of skill in such.  Ever since 2009's The Princess and the Frog, which I guess we can call the last hurrah for traditional animation in America, Disney's been going through a phase of giving their world-famous princesses a higher degree of agency in terms of their respective plots.  They do stuff now, is what I'm saying.  Still, knowing what I know about other markets (read: anime), this comes across not so much as Disney stepping out of their comfort zone as it is them looking out the window into another adjacent comfort zone.  But the bare minimum of progress seems to have paid off -- as of the time I post this, Frozen is officially the best-selling animated motion picture of all time. 4  We're talking more than a billion dollars worldwide, peoples, And before you ask, The Wind Rises was highly successful in its home land, grossing over US$110 million during its run to become the best-selling Japanese film of 2013.  But its draw in America?  A paltry $5 million. 5

With that in mind, is it too much for me to ask that we, as the people of one nation, become more willing to branch out and consume the media of a land not our own?  ...Sorry, that's my Devil's Advocate talking again.  I hate that guy.  Of course it's not too much for me to ask!  As evidenced by the jurors' leaked comments, we have a very narrow concept of a medium that has so much more to offer.  I mean, an animated feature this based in reality?  No one over here would have the balls to attempt that, I can tell you!  With the likes of The Wind Rises, a new way forward for the animation industry has opened -- but we chose not to enter the door.  I weep for you, America.  And I'm not saying Frozen is terrible, either -- it's quite good, in fact.  It's just not billion-dollar good, or Best Animated Feature good.  As such, given the circumstances, I hereby state that I refuse to acknowledge Frozen as the recipient of the 2014 Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, and instead consider The Wind Rises as such.  It's my blog, I can do whatever I want.

PS: Yes, I left out one of the nominees, the Franco-Belgian Ernest & Celestine.  I'll be honest, I'd never heard about that one before, but it only serves to illustrate my point about the stranglehold the Hollywood machine has on our media.

1 Amidi, Amid.  "Definitive Proof That Academy Voters Are Ignorant About Animation".  Cartoon Brew, 2 March 2014.

2 Anonymous, told to Feinberg, Scott.  "Oscar Voter Reveals Brutally Honest Ballot".  Hollywood Reporter, 26 February 2014.

3 rtil.  "'The Wind Rises".  deviantART, 12 March 2014.

4 Amidi, Amid.  "'Frozen' Just Became The Highest-Grossing Animated Film Ever".  Cartoon Brew, 30 March 2014.

5 Box Office Mojo.  "The Wind Rises (2014)".  Box Office Mojo, 9 April 2014.