It's a wonderful thing to leave a movie theater in a state of euphoria, having just shared a transcendental experience with a bunch of strangers and feeling as if you've taken back a small bit of wisdom from a journey to another world. But...sometimes it's more interesting to leave a theater with some degree of confusion and uncertainty. These feelings of ambiguity are what help us learn and grow, and what prompt us to question ourselves. Right? Right.
These are the ridiculous things I, a rabid fan of all things to spring from Studio Ghibli, told myself after seeing Hayao Miyazaki's latest animated feature, The Wind Rises.
Throughout the film, not only was I scratching my head, but I was also scratching my ass -- I hate to say this, because I love everything that this man has done, but Miyazaki's latest two hour epic is…boring.
I know that's not necessarily the most eloquent or helpful critique, so let's dig a bit deeper into this.
The Wind Rises tells the story of Jiro Horikoshi, the real life designer of the Mitsubishi A5M and the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, aircraft used by Japan in World War II. We follow Horikoshi as he tries to create these planes. If that sounds somewhat underwhelming...it is, at least on paper. Those that flock to Miyazaki's works for their fantasy elements will be disappointed here -- the somber wartime story is strictly grounded in reality. Though the WWII setting immediately calls to mind Isao Takahata's 1988 masterpiece Grave of the Fireflies, it actually has more in common with Miyazaki's own From Up on Poppy Hill (read my review here: http://geeksout.org/blogs/ranerdin/movie-review-poppy-hill)
The two films share much in common on a surface level. Both films tell a story of Japan struggling to reconcile its conflict between tradition and modernization in times of transition and change, and each does so by focusing on the small scale personal struggles of individuals rather than society at large. Both are told in a very quiet, very subtle way.
It is easy to find parallels between Horikoshi's passion for creating beautiful things and Miyazaki's own career. As always, Studio Ghibli has created a sensory masterpiece. The art, the music, and the animation are all absolutely stunning, and I would expect nothing less. In the right mindset, one can sit back and appreciate the film as an audio and visual treat. The film carries the theme of wind throughout, both in wonderfully animated sequences of flight as well as in its quieter moments on the ground. Unfortunately, the lightness and the levity of the ever present wind sometimes feel incongruous with the heaviness of the subject matter.
This is very much Miyazaki's passion project, and it's clear how much of his heart and soul were poured into this film. Unfortunately, like Horikoshi himself, the single-minded passion for a goal often creates a tunnel vision focus, with little left to enliven the periphery. There are few side characters that stand out as particularly memorable or likable, and the romance seems arbitrarily tacked on as an afterthought. On some level, this might be the point: following one's creative dreams (literally, in this case -- Horikoshi finds most of his motivation while asleep) can make something as big as the world at war and the near destruction of an entire nation seem almost as minor and inconsequential as a young love affair. A thing which itself always exists in the interesting dichotomy of being small and selfish, but also, somehow, of seemingly global and monumental importance. Might this be reaching on my part? Sure. Authorial intent aside, these kinds of films work best for me as a sort of Rorschach test, and we can see whatever we want in them, as I'm sure Horikoshi himself would agree that we impose our own will on the shapes of the clouds in the sky. And it's just as well, since there isn't actually much happening outside of our own heads here. The movie at times seems as if it's on the verge of making a point or two -- Horikoshi wants to create things solely for the sake of beauty and, initially, seems to despise that they are being used as instruments of war, but his misgivings are never really developed and consequently the film never quite hits where it feels like it should. And maybe it's the American in me that is somehow missing some contextual point. I saw this in its English dub, and while Ghibli's voice actors are always top notch, I'm sure there is more nuance in the original script that doesn't necessarily translate well here.
There are many beautiful and quiet moments to appreciate in this film, but there are simply too many of them. From Up on Poppy Hill almost suffered from the same thing, but there was just enough whimsy to rescue it. Unfortunately, The Wind Rises lacks some of its predecessor's charm (it also lacks Jamie Lee Curtis), and the "based on a true story" footnote serves to somewhat weigh it down on the ground. The film does occasionally catch an air current and manages to soar upward in several dream sequences, and these moments convey the joy and beauty of flight that Miyazaki has always done with great success. These scenes tease us with what Ghibli does best, and it sometimes feels frustrating to return to the bleakness of reality when Horikoshi wakes up, even if that reality is beautifully drawn and animated.
It is as stupid and meaningless to critique The Wind Rises for not being Spirited Away as it would be to critique Schindler's List for not being Jurassic Park -- the two films share a director and nothing else. I appreciate this story as one that Miyazaki felt he had to tell -- he clearly has a personal connection to this character. But if this is truly his last film (and there are rumors that it is not -- the man has retired more times than Cher) it unfortunately brought with it gigantic and probably unrealistic expectations. The idea that following your dreams will bring you to the sky is a theme that Miyazaki has chased for over 50 years. As with anyone in history that has dreamed of flight -- whose dreams sent them soaring above the heaviness and gravity of the world of mediocrity to create a thing of beauty -- the journey toward the sky is wrought with stumbles and missteps and, yes, many crash landings. And while The Wind Rises does not exactly crash and burn, it is also not the soaring culmination and pinnacle of a legendary career that many were hoping it would be. As a standalone film, though, there is still much to love in this quiet and unassuming story. Rating: B