March 27, 2014

The Wind Rises: Miyazaki’s Swan Song Falls Flat

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Any aspiring screenwriter has read Pixar’s “22 Rules of Storytelling” by now. Rule Six reads, “What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?” Pixar enjoys a sterling reputation because it tells tight, satisfying stories, wherein an unlikely protagonist braves a mountain of intensifying conflict and emerges victorious. Up fits all it’s got into a three-act structure, the Hollywood standard, and somehow makes it unforced, even sparse.

Only Hayao Miyazaki and the powerhouse he co-founded, Studio Ghibli, rival Pixar in the international market for acclaimed animated films. Yet Miyazaki tells stories that do not conform to Hollywood structure. It explains why the meandering Spirited Away proved so jarring to my nine-year-old brain, in addition to all its weird ghosts and pigs. His films use ma, the Japanese word for “space” or “pause,” to contemplative, disarming effect. The best of them are flat-out art films. So it is awkward to critique The Wind Rises, Miyazaki’s latest and potentially last film, for it conforms to a straightforward biopic formula that plays against Miyazaki’s strengths. Of course, everything on screen still brims with beauty and rewards symbolic reading.

For the first time, Miyazaki dramatizes the life of a historical figure, with the same name, look and all. We meet the young Jiro Horikoshi in his dream, in which he flies a plane of his own invention high in the sky until a monolithic flying fortress emerges from the clouds and sends Jiro and shrapnel plummeting to the ground. The Icarus myth recurs throughout the film, for while Jiro’s poor eyesight precludes a piloting career, he instead dedicates his life to designing the world’s sleekest and fastest airplanes, just as World War II beckons. That most prototypes snap and set aflame on test runs only motivates Jiro to try harder, yet he must balance his perfectionism within a military sphere willing to sacrifice speed and safety if it means bolting a machine gun onto a wing, with compassionate, grounding human relationships.

Unfortunately, this conflict — between career and life, war and grace, male superiors and female loved ones — fails to reach us with Jiro at its center. From the start, Jiro is perfect: He saves a woman and child from the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, fastens a splint on the former’s broken leg like a Boy Scout, carries them to their families and ducks out before they can ask his name. Voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the only occasionally awkward English dub, Jiro could not be sweeter, what with his command of etiquette and mastery of kenjōgo (“polite language”). His romance with Naoko (Emily Blunt), a sickly girl with a mature outlook on life, offers only overwhelming sentiment, effective as it may be. Their love colors the second half of the film, and Miyazaki strains to connect them with his larger questions. Naoko can only whisper into Jiro’s ear how great he is so many times until they both flatten into cardboard. To quote Reverse Shot critic Eric Hynes on Dallas Buyers Club, “Never trust a film that applauds its own protagonist.”

The undisciplined narrative disappoints, since Miyazaki works best in looser, more radical genres than the standard biopic. But count on Miyazaki to trot out the weird and fantastic, in spite of all else. Werner Herzog lends his Bavarian tenor to a watercress-loving German whose quivering pupils resemble black, cartoon suns. Out of his mouth slither omens of impending war or wishes of health and happiness, and nothing in between. He haunts a resort in midland Japan more like an apparition than a human, as does the Felliniesque inventor Giovanni Caproni (Stanley Tucci), who Jiro encounters multiple times in high-flying dreamscapes. In both Jiro’s dreams and reality, struggling aircrafts emit moaning, guttural sounds. Miyazaki refrains from flooding the soundtrack with ambient particulars (think of all you hear during one establishing crane shot from, say, Pirates of the Caribbean), so this aural motif stands out as it humanizes machines that, to Jiro, serve a higher purpose than as weapons to kill.

Miyazaki has sustained attacks from his homeland that The Wind Rises communicates an “anti-Japanese” message in its depiction of the military as droning thugs and the war effort as misguided, at best, and sinful, at worst. I admire the film’s stance, even though it could have gone further by maybe mentioning the anti-Korean violence following the Kanto earthquake. But now and then the film looks out from its bubble. When Jiro and his best friend Honjo (John Krasinski) visit Berlin, they catch a glimpse of Gestapo agents chasing renegade Jews through streets bathed in German Expressionist shadows. The Nazis stop to shove their flashlights in Jiro and Honjo’s faces, gritting their teeth to round them up too. Jiro saves them both, of course, but the uneasy alliance amongst Axis nations casts a more permeating spall over the film than any material gains Japanese engineers enjoy in their collaboration with the Nazis. That is a good thing.

Obviously, there is a whole lot I like about The Wind Rises. Miyazaki mulls over the outrageous paradox that only in times of war do governments support artists, provided they sacrifice all humane values they hold dear. Yet as pretty as every frame is, the film proves far more stimulating after you watch it, as you try and fish out significance from Miyazaki’s sincere intentions. Jiro is simply too good and thus boring a protagonist for a film so concerned about mortality, compromise and geopolitical tension. He stands aloft the breakers of global tumult, undampened by its waves of red as he floats away on a raft of saccharine fantasy, one that he sees as the world entire.