Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Cinema File #282: "The Wind Rises" Review

When you think of the history of Japan and airplanes, what's the first image that pops into your head? Yeah, I know, its uncomfortable and more than a little unfair especially in light of the warm relationship between America and Japan today, but sometimes these kinds of associations are so powerful that they defy our desire to move past them. The Wind Rises, the supposed last film from Hayao Miyazaki, is particularly preoccupied with this conundrum, charting the life of an innocent dreamer trapped in the gravitational pull of an inevitable war that threatens to turn his dreams into the stuff of nightmares. I say this is the supposed last film of the great animation director because this isn't the first time he's announced his retirement, and if his latest is any indication, one hopes that he might still have some more left in him.

The Wind Rises is the story of Jiro Horikoshi, an aeronautical engineer who just wants to make beautiful airplanes, only to find that his dream is made complicated by his nation's involvement with the Nazis during World War II. In light of the director's earlier work, that description might sound a little strange, in that it contains really nothing strange at all, or rather, nothing overtly magical or fantastical as is typical of a Miyazaki film. If like me you were to come into this movie without any knowledge as to its content, the opening dream sequence might be a little deceptive, and would not adequately prepare you for the movie you were about to see. The Wind Rises is not a rousing romp through some mystical landscape or a new take on a classic Japanese myth or fable. Its a staid, down to Earth historical drama about a real life person (though much of his personal life is an invention of the film), and for die hard fans, at least in America, this might be somewhat disconcerting.

Personally, I still found it to be delightful, touching, and captivating, and I hope that many will be pleasantly surprised by how much the film can still grab hold of them even without the mysterious supernatural elements they might have been expecting. As always, the visual style on its own is enough to hold ones interest even before the story or the mood kick in, and a more realistic setting doesn't serve to diminish the beauty or majesty of Miyazaki's compositions. His lush pastoral portrayal of rural pre-war Japan as it struggles with the contradictions of modernity might as well be a magical world for how alien it seems to us today, and as is often the case with Miyazaki, the pacing is slow without being torturous, moving at just the right speed to let you slow down and appreciate each moment as you would a great painting that just happens to be moving.

Just watching the intricacy and delicacy with which the main character moves his hands as he sits at his drafting table is presented as something wondrous and important. Its an image that any artist knows well, and captures the experience of turning dreams into art, and turning art into reality. This is what defines Jiro, and in a different context, one might guess it is what defines Miyazaki as well, but in the case of his (hopefully not) last work, we see the dark side of this creative process as the beauty of creation gives way to a cataclysm that literally reshapes the history of Japan. Echos of modern ails from a tsunami to a crippled economy are littered throughout the narrative as the foreboding knowledge of what Jiro's designs will later be used for hangs ever present over his simple desire to see his inventions take flight, and it ends on a bittersweet note where his dream comes true, in more ways then he imagined or wanted.

At a little over two hours, The Wind Rises is just maybe a bit too in love with its own soft hearted charm and elegance, but since its intended to be the swan song of such an accomplished genius, its hard not to allow him the indulgence, especially when the end result is ultimately so worth experiencing. Apart from a few recurring dream sequences and one very magical mustache, its virtually devoid of most of the tropes normally associated with at least a superficial understanding of the Miyazaki canon, but his stamp is all over the movie and his unique ability to craft moments of pure cinematic joy on screen infuses every minute of a film ostensibly centered around so much pain and sorrow. Its a story that should leave you reaching for the tissues or maybe even the noose, but in the right hands, it reveals a hopeful side of humanity and if need be stands as a fitting end to an amazing career.

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