Movies/ Mouthing Off/ A Miscellany

Movies/ Mouthing Off/ A Miscellany
Movies/ Mouthing Off/ A Miscellany

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Miyazaki's Grounded Goodbye

But this rough magic
I here abjure; and when I have required
Some heavenly music (which even now I do),
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I'll break my staff
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I'll drown my book
When Hayao Miyazaki announced that The Wind Rises would be his final film, I  think many of us expected something mellow and elegiac, maybe along the lines of Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest.  After all, Miyazaki seemed to have hit the  sweet spot, both commercially and artistically with his previous film, Ponyo. An incredibly cute reworking of the Little Mermaid, Ponyo, solidified Miyazaki’s long-term partnership with Disney, pleading for the environmental claims of the ocean without seriously ruffling any feathers. Instead, Miyazaki abruptly shifted gears, offering a problem play in the form of a biography of Jiro Horikoshi.  Instead of a final jewel in the Studio Ghibli crown, Miyazaki has fashioned a meditation on empire-building itself.


In Japan, the film set off a bit of a firestorm, weathering criticism as both overly harsh on Japan and as whitewashing Japanese war crimes.  The controversy also generated lots of sales: the film went on to be the top box-office performer in Japan for 2013. In the U.S., on the other hand, while critics were in the main rapturous, sales remained muted. The film was “poetic” and “sensitive.” This was a film about a Japanese "designer," by a Japanese "master," American taste-makers decreed. It was maybe not for children, they warned, just to be on the safer side. Too many scenes with people smoking.

Of course Jiro Horikoshi was not just a designer, he designed the Zero fighter plane, the plane that flew into Pearl Harbor and that, by war’s end, was transformed into a different kind of weapon in the hands of teenage kamikaze pilots. The plane had no civilian use. Yet the American critics were oddly reluctant to engage with this rather obvious aspect of the film. No one, it seemed, wanted to be known as the doofus who disliked the last film of the beloved Miyazaki. Instead, as a group they just kind of glided over the considerable difficulties it presents for the American viewer.

Happily, a few critics of sensitivity and mettle were willing to wade in a bit deeper. J. Hoberman was struck by the deeply contradictory nature of this particular cartoon: “As a movie, The Wind Rises is both beautifully restrained and wildly problematic. . . Kids may be bored; their parents, on the other hand, will have way too much to think about.” Korean-American critic Inkoo Kang put it succinctly, if a bit brutally when she observed, “It’s hard to believe that, were The Wind Rises set in an interwar Germany and focused on an idealistic dreamer who just wanted to design the world’s most beautiful U-boat and didn’t care a whit about the concentration camps, it would receive a similarly adoring reception here in the U.S.” (Considering the communal fanboy e-bomb dropped on Kang  via the internet as a result of her comments, this cowed and evasive response actually makes sense.)

Miyazaki himself seems to have had major qualms about making the film. “If we created such a film,” Miyazaki reportedly told his long-time production partner in the planning stages, “that would be digging the tomb of Studio Ghibli.” Miyazaki had apparently been planning on making Ponyo 2 as his next project, which would have made a great deal of sense from a business perspective, and no doubt much more to the liking of his distribution partner of the last 5 years, Disney Films. As well as being the sequel to a successful film, and thus having a ready audience, such a film also lends itself to massive DVD sales within the United States, since parents readily shell-out money for a hard-copy their children can watch again and again. As an animator who went on to build an enormously profitable international entertainment company, the comparison between Miyazaki and Disney is obvious, and oft-made. In spite of manifold cultural differences, the partnership seemed to make sense on a number of levels, and has proved enormously profitable for both. But in the decision to made a film about Japan’s role in the war, and celebrating one of the architects of its military assault, it seems the artist Miyazaki won out over the mogul. He was willing, it seems, to put the animation dynasty that represents his life work in jeopardy. The obvious question: What about this story held such an enormous pull that he felt compelled to take that risk?

The decision to make a film loosely based on Jiro Horikoshi’s obscure 1970 autobiography, Eagles of Mitsubishi: The Story of the Zero Fighter, lies squarely in his family history. His father, Katsuji Miyazaki, ran the MIyazaki Plane Company, which manufactured and installed certain features of the Zero plane, particularly the rudders. (The Wind Rises features many loving close-ups of details like rivets and other technical elements of the Zero's wings, something numerous American critics have noted with bemusement. Of the dozens of reviews I read only one noted the obvious family interest in airplane manufacturing, however.)

Apparently this attention to the details of this plane also figures largely in Horikoshi’s 1970 autobiography, something that must have caught the attention of the 30-year-old Hayao Miyazaki when it came out, touching as it did on his own family history. But whereas The Story of the Zero Fighter is, according to one reader, “about 80%” devoted to technical aspects of the plane itself, The Wind Rises takes rather wild liberties with Horikoshi’s life. As it turns out Horikoshi’s work is, for the most part, merely an efficient hanger (perhaps hangar is more appropriate?) for some very personal preoccupations of Miyazaki’s own. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the period it covers just prior to Miyazaki’s birth (January 5, 1941), The Wind Rises deeply concerns the generation preceding his own, and more specifically, with his own parents.

The parents of Spirited Away eat greedily

The Wind Rises has repeatedly been called a departure from Miyazaki’s previous imaginative work for children, but the film will not hold up under much scrutiny as a “realistic” work.  The film opens and closes with a dream sequence. Furthermore, dreams freely bleed into reality; it's almost impossible to clearly mark the difference, especially in the early sections of the film.

On my second viewing, without the distraction of trying to get my bearings with the plot, I was very struck by the dream logic of the film.
The Wind Rises opens with a child dreaming, dreaming of flying a homemade plane. The dream then turns into a nightmare, with the small wooden plane overshadowed by an enormous zeppelin, dangling weapons from every side like an apocalyptic charm bracelet. The plane then splinters into pieces plunging the boy into the abyss.

In fact, every time a plane takes flight in the film’s first half, whether in reality or imagination,  it always ends in disaster. The sky suddenly darkens, the music alarms, the plane disintegrates, frequently splattering bystanders with black muck (oil or mud, I wasn’t always clear which). Whether we register it consciously or not, we are caught in a nightmare -- the nightmare of history. Miyazaki was born in the year Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, was forced out of his village as a small child by American firebombing, and was all of 5 when the U.S. dropped the first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A child’s sense of dread and the mutability of the world hangs over The Wind Rises, making it very much of a piece with Miyazaki’s other films.
After the enchanted meal

In the 2009 manga, also authored by Miyazaki, Jiro Horikoshi is himself figured as a pig, as is the rest of his design team. Even though the character has become something of a pleasant cipher in The Wind Rises, there’s little doubt that anti-war sentiment is in the very DNA of the project. Miyazaki has been criticized because the film does not show first-hand the destruction wrought by the Zero plane. And though some criticism of Japan’s escalating war effort is voiced in the film, it is brief, and mostly in the mouth of Jiro’s less talented engineer friend. David Denby, in his review of the film, calls Miyazaki deeply “ambivalent” about the Zero plane, calling him half-in-love with Japan’s militaristic inheritance.
 The Wind Rises' consumptive love interest

Dig a little deeper, Denby: this film is pacifist to the bones. The trauma and dread of the young boy who experienced war-mongering and its aftermath permeates the film, especially evident in the rhythm of the film, the compulsive repetition and the emotional texture. (It’s also there in the grafting of consumptive novelist Tatsuo Hori’s novel The Wind Has Risen onto the story of plane designer Jiro Horikoshi. Miyazaki’s mother, who died of tuberculosis, is a presence in this portion of the film as well, as is Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. But it would require a separate blog entry to delve into all that. Suffice it to say this complex, layered work that rewards repeated, attentive viewing.)

Miyazaki’s parting gift is a deeply autobiographical work, a heart-felt tribute to his parents and to the alchemy of art. We can admire the vision and dedication that went into the Zero plane,  he suggests, while “ditching the guns” to make for a lighter and more viable aircraft (a suggestion Horikoshi makes in the film to the chortles of his colleagues). Before you dismiss his idealism as a “cursed dream” (to quote the film's final vision), consider that this is exactly the tangible transformation by which MIyazaki Plane Company became Studio Ghibli.

I’ll conclude with the lines from Paul Valéry poem The Graveyard by the Sea with which the film commences:
“The wind is rising. . .we must attempt to live.”

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