Thursday, January 15, 2015

Film Review: The Wind Rises

Previously on the SDP, I discussed the Studio Ghibli film The Wind Rises on two occasions. First, I discussed its ramifications in the context of the Japanese political right, and second, I lamented its lack of exposure and acclaim from my own country. But between the time I first saw it in theatres and when I got to re-watch it on home video, The Wind Rises became, to me, less of an actual product and more of an icon, an ideal, something I chose to stand for. But now that it finally came out on home video and I've had a chance to re-watch it, how does it stand against my mind's interpretation of it?

The Wind Rises
  • Publisher: Toho (JP), Touchstone Pictures (US) 
  • Studio: Studio Ghibli 
  • Genre: Drama 
  • Release: 20 July 2013 (JP), 21 February 2014 (US) 
  • Director: Hayao Miyazaki 
  • Producer: Toshio Suzuki 
  • Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
The Wind Rises bills itself as a fictionalised biography of a one Jiro Horikoshi (EN: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, JP: Hideaki Anno), a Japanese airplane designer active in the 1920s and '30s. Sounds like a boring idea for an animated movie, doesn't it? Well if you thought that, A) you suck, and B) Studio Ghibli has ways to punch it up every once in a while. At points throughout the movie, the plot is intercut with Jiro's dreams, where he interacts with a mister Giovanni Caproni (EN: Stanley Tucci, JP: Nomura Mansai), a real-life Italian plane designer who inspires him to embark down a similar path in life. And indeed Jiro does go down that path, studying aviation in high school and eventually landing a job with the Mitsubishi company, all the while accompanied by his friend Kiro Honjo (EN: John Krasinski, JP: Hidetoshi Nishijima).

The character of Honjo stuck out to me, in what few scenes he took part in, because of his commentary on the state of Japan at the time. This movie takes place, at the latest, half a century after the Meiji Revolution brought Japan back onto the world stage, but even then, the nation's industry and modernisation was a work in progress. The Japanese of the time might have been able to make airplanes, but they were still using wood-and-canvas frames whereas their peers in Germany, the United States, and what-have-you had advanced to full-metal models. Perhaps this state of affairs is best encapsulated in an observation Honjo makes, that they still use oxen to transport prototype planes to the takeoff/landing site. It's as if the whole of Japan is a character in and of itself, having its own character arc and all that.

So as you witness this transition take place over the course of the movie, you'd be forgiven for thinking The Wind Rises is taking a nationalistic standpoint on history. You may also feel troubled if you know your basic 20th century history, because this development also led to the Japanese Empire thinking it could get away with bringing its neighbours under its fold -- the hard way. But The Wind Rises is surprisingly apolitical about the whole thing. If anything, it's against war in general, which for the record is also the point of Miyazaki-sama himself. There are a few lines in the script when Jiro states disapproval of how his creations were used for such destruction, but at the end of the day he is proud of his contributions to the field of aviation. As he and Signior Caproni discussed in one of their dreams, he'd still rather live in a world with the dreams of aviation realised. There's even a moment when Jiro discusses how to cut the weight from one of his models, and he half-jokingly suggests they take out the guns altogether. But, I ask of Horikoshi-san, if you don't want your planes to be used for war, then what, pray tell, is their purpose? It's not like these planes can carry a suitable volume of passengers for peaceful air travel! What did you think would happen when you decided to design fighter planes!? Oh well, you know what they say -- the road to Heck is paved with frozen door-to-door salesmen -- I mean, good intentions.
The Jiro/Naoko romance scenes are sweet, but have little impact on the plot.
So going through the movie, Jiro's career goes through a few ups and downs, until one particular failure causes him to take a sabbatical at a mountain resort, wherein he meets up with Naoko Satomi (EN: Emily Blunt, JP: Miori Takimoto). The two spark up a romance in due time, which goes unextinguished even when he learns that she suffers from tuberculosis, thus casting a shadow of impermanance over their relationship. My problem with this romantic sub-plot is that it doesn't exactly have any say on the main plot of Jiro's career, which especially jarring considering that it doesn't start until about an hour in to the film's runtime. And, in fact, it never even happened to the real Jiro Horikoshi. This little diversion comes from a novel also titled "The Wind Rises", written by Tatsuo Hori in 1937. (Hori-san is, at least, given a dedication slide at the end of the film, along with Horikoshi-san.) Remember when I said this movie was a "fictionalised biography"? Yeah, that's why.

It is a perfectly fine romance, don't get me wrong. I like a good tug at the ol' heartstrings every once in a while, and indeed the Jiro/Naoko sub-plot does this every once in a while, for example when he hears about her lung haemmorhage, or when his boss conducts an impromptu wedding for the young couple. All in all, it still leaves me with a warm and fuzzy feeling, and as my praise for the similarly emotional Kaleido Star indicates, this is a positive quality in my book. But you could cut out Naoko's scenes and not only would The Wind Rises not suffer for it, but it would bring the film's 127-minute running time down to a more manageable length.

Whilst on the subject of this film's flaws, I thought the English voice cast was a tad hit-or-miss. Actually, I can think of only one miss, but it's a big one. Maybe Joseph Gordon-Levitt wasn't the best choice for this role. Why couldn't this Honjo guy have been the main character? Or at the very least, why couldn't his actor have portrayed Jiro instead of Mr. JGL? The same goes for the Japanese track, where the lead character is played by Hideaki Anno, of all people. (If you don't know, this guy created numerous anime series back in the day, and was even an employee at Studio Ghibli once.) There are more engaging performances sprinkled among the supporting cast, such as the aforementioned Honjo-san, Jiro's boss Mr. Kurokawa (EN: Martin Short, JP: Masahiko Nishimura), and his sister Kayo (EN: Mae Whitman, JP: Mirai Shida).
Dream sequences and other visualisations demonstrate the animation prowess of Studio Ghibli.
The Wind Rises is a Studio Ghibli production, so I shouldn't have to tell you how good this movie looks. What few scenes of fast action exist in this movie are animated realistically, yet dynamically at the same time. There are some moments where I wondered if the animators used rotoscoping techniques, and I mean that in a good way. But the film isn't entirely grounded in reality; some scenes take place in the dreams of Jiro and Caproni, as I previously mentioned, and other scenes apply a layer of similar dreamlike visualizations onto otherwise ordinary moments, illustrating Jiro's thought process and what-not. For example, in one scene where Jiro is drafting a design for a certain plane component, we see the finished plane flying in a clear sky, and the wind rustling the pages on his desk. And yet no one seems to notice them... But anyway. these visualisations serve two purposes: they make for visually creative shots, and they explain technical concepts for the laymen of the audience. The score is also magnificent, although I'd expect nothing less from composer Joe Hisaishi, who has worked with Ghibli for a long time. I don't know about you, but I'm a sucker for dramatic scenes where the music is a slow buildup and the sound-effect track is muted entirely. (See also: the opera shootout in Quantum of Solace.)

So if I'm able to find so many flaws upon re-watching this movie, why am I still willing to stand up for it? Well, to put it in one word, it's real. It's not trying to be anything it's not, which is especially notable for an animated feature. You know how Frozen, for example, had musical numbers, comic relief characters, and a romantic sub-plot entirely separate from the rest of the movie? Yeah, The Wind Rises ain't having any of that. Except for that last one... bad example, that. My point is, this story could have fit very well as a live-action film, but Miyazaki chose to have it animated because A) animation is what he's good at, and B) this movie is the story he wanted to tell. And to those who say, "Why did it have to be animated?", I say to them, "Why not?"

+ Plenty of emotional moments which left me with a warm and fuzzy feeling.
+ An interesting and well-acted supporting cast.

- The Jiro/Naoko romantic sub-plot could have been left out.
- The lead actor's performance is a tad wooden, both in Japanese and English.

Acting (English): 4 airplanes out of 5
Acting (Japanese): 4 airplanes out of 5
Writing: 4 airplanes out of 5
Animation: 5 airplanes out of 5
Visual Design: 5 airplanes out of 5
The Call: 90% (A-)

P.S.: After I started work on writing this review, it has come to my attention that Hayao Miyazaki, among two others, had won an Academy Honorary Award in November of 2014.[1]  For those who don't know, these awards are given at judges' discretion separately from the regular Oscars, but involve the same statuettes given to winners at the regular ceremony. After having been so unfairly snubbed by the Oscars earlier in the year, I suppose hearing about this development has put my soul at ease a bit. I mean, you could interpret that as him winning the award for all of his films! All the same, for the sake of my mental health, I'm probably going to ignore the Oscars from here on out, or at least the Best Animated Feature category. Wouldn't wan't to have my hopes dashed like that again. I suppose this younger, more worldy generation will make the kinds of changes once we get into positions of power, but until then, I'll leave you with these words:

This is IchigoRyu.

You are the resistance.

[1] "Harry Belafonte, Hayao Miyazaki, Maureen O’Hara to get honorary Oscars". Entertainment Weekly. 28 August 2014, retrieved 15 January 2015.

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