Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Miyazaki's labor of love

So, for weeks now I've been wanting to go see the new Studio Ghibli movie, THE WIND RISES, but the Deadline Gods would have it otherwise. During the current respite, when I'm working on my Kalamazoo paper while waiting on galleys from the BRIEF HISTORY but taking the weekends off to recoup a bit, we finally managed it, driving down to the Grand Cinema in Tacoma. Unfortunately the version they were showing was dubbed into English, but at least it was a pretty good dub, with some surprising voice actors (e.g., Werner Herzog and Stanley Tucci). But then the original Japanese voice casting also seems to have been unusual, with Hideaki Anno (the incompetent genius behind many of Studio Gainax's most famous projects) as the voice of the main character.

Voices aside, the movie was everything you'd expect from the world's greatest living animator. Miyazaki excels at fantasy and slice-of-life re-creations of times past, often combining the two seamlessly into the same film. Nobody evokes times past like Miyazaki, and THE WIND RISES is no exception: he re-creates preWar Japan of the 'twenties and 'thirties with all the detail of a great noir director yet with a warm, soft palette befitting the warm, gentle story he has to tell. At first glance the subject matter -- a biopic of the man who designed the Zero, Japan's WWII-era fighter-planes, used at Pearl Harbor and later in kamakazi attacks near the end of the war -- wd seem an odd choice for Miyazaki. Yet in another sense it's entirely fitting: Miyazaki has shown a fascination with flight and flying machines of all kinds throughout his career, from Nausicaa's single-person hoppers and Kiki's broom to Howl's nightmare flights and, of course, PORCO ROSSO.

In Miyazaki's telling, Jiro Horikoshi is a man obsessed with designing the perfect airplane: unworldly and brilliant, unable to become a pilot himself because of poor eyesight but passionate about everything to do with planes. It's a cruel irony of fate that the people willing to fund his work are the Japanese military, and that his elegant design serves as a weapon of war. It's as if someone decided to make an animated film about the life and career of Werner von Braun, from his early fascination with Goddard's rockets through his war-work on the V2s to his later guiding the U. S. space program, including most notably the race to the moon.

This is a movie filled with planes, both real and imagined (in the many dream-sequences, a number of which feature Jiro's hero, Italian plane designer Caproni), but the real heart of the movie is the touching (and ultimately tragic) love story between Jiro and the girl he meets during the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 (in itself a stunning piece of animation). The film's more than two hours long, but it certainly doesn't feel like it -- if anything, it feels too short, since it covers Jiro's life in detail up to the mid-thirties and then suddenly jumps ahead to the post-war era for a brief, melancholy meditation upon the waste of war, more or less ignoring the final (postwar) decades of Jiro's life. In the end, though, it doesn't really matter: a great film doesn't have to be perfect, and I know I'll be wanting to see this one again.

They're billing this as the Last Movie for Hayao Miyazaki, one of the world's great directors and without doubt the best creator of animated films.  Let's hope not -- though if Miyazaki, now in his seventies and with a brilliant body of work behind him, feels like he wants to retire, he's certainly earned the right. And this movie is good enough to be worthy of being a great filmmaker's final work. But those of us who admire his work will always want more.

--John R.
current reading: THE FALL OF ARTHUR (re-reading), JOURNEY TO THE WEST (slowly, v. slowly), EPIC POOH.

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