Hiyao Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises” – Dream, invention, and responsibility

Poster for "The Wind Rises"

Editor’s note: This screening featured the US edition of the film, dubbed in English.

The first act of Hiyao Miyazaki‘s The Wind Rises, allegedly the director’s final film before retirement, contains many jarring transitions between childhood dream and reality. The young Jiro (voice of Zach Callison) dreams of becoming an aeronautical engineer at the dawn of aviation itself. Certainly, the technology would soon see its first use in global warfare, but at the dawn of the 20th century, it remained the stuff of fantasy and legend. The first airplane that we see is Jiro’s confabulation of something halfway between a World War II Japanese Zero and the split feathers and slowly flapping wings of an eagle or hawk. It is a gorgeous, mighty, preposterous thing – and young Jiro can’t stand the notion that his Harry-Potter-worthy spectacles will prevent him from ever being able to fly one himself. This fantasy is presided over by Italian aerial pioneer Giovanni Caproni (Stanley Tucci), or at least a magical caricature thereof, who is happy to stroll up and down the wings of his ridiculous six-winged creations, or jump off to a running stop in mid-flight.

These dream sequences are exhilarating, to be sure, but the transitions between dream and story were often accompanied by jarring shifts in tone and a lack of clear separation, to the point when adult Jiro (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is caught in a monstrous earthquake and fire while traveling on a train to university, it is not immediately clear whether the towering, apocalyptic inferno that scorches the sky and countryside is real, or another imagined construct. But it quickly becomes clear that this is a very real event.

From this point on, what we’re seeing is a heavily fictionalized biopic of Dr. Jiro Horikoshi, the eventual designer of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, a high-speed fighter that would be the scourge of the Pacific campaign during World War II, widely regarded as one of the finest pieces of aeronautical engineering ever produced for its time. But this Jiro is not the architect of a weapon of war; he’s just madly in love with airplanes.

Still from "The Wind Rises"

The film broaches this theme quite explicitly in the imagined conversations between Jiro and Caproni. The Italian begins by telling Jiro that airplanes are not weapons of war, and that he dreams of eventually using them to ferry passengers and unite the world through travel. At this point, the audience is free to reject this sentiment as wildly absurd and disingenuous, as both Jiro and Caproni’s employment is at the behest of their governments, who were on the eve of engaging in expansionist warfare. And yet, even with the benefit of hindsight, The Wind Rises succeeds as a highly personal and humanized take on the age-old science fiction theme of whether an inventor is ultimately responsible for what his dream and invention might be used for. Aviation can unite mankind, or empower its capacity for mutual destruction. Nuclear energy can power a city, or destroy one. Many of our most valued technologies would not exist if not for their invention in the service of war. But this is really only the beginning of the film’s treatment of this theme.

The characters – both Jiro himself – tasked with building fighter planes, and his friend and colleague Honjo (Jon Krasinski), tasked with designing heavy bombers – seem quite aware that their inventions will be put to destructive use. But they just can’t help themselves. They collaborate and share ideas. They consume and improve upon technology with a ravenous passion. And the film essentially glorifies this drive to innovation. If The Wind Rises has a technological thesis, it is that invention is morally neutral at worst, and glorious at best, regardless of its eventual purpose.

In another imagined conversation, Caproni eventually asks Jiro if he would rather live in a world with or without pyramids. This is a curious question. Pyramids could be regarded as a one of the great, wondrous achievements of mankind – echoing their greatness with their endurance through the ages. Or they could be regarded as a monument to squandered resources and lives for no greater purpose. Much like warfare itself. It can be for glory and progress, but it will be for death and destruction. The Wind Rises is clearly in the former camp – air travel is a great wonder of mankind, and the film depicts each grand aerial vehicle as a larger-than-life, incredible machine – even some of the confabulated terrors from Jiro’s early dreams (including a massive zeppelin dropping vaguely human-shaped bombs) are impressively depicted. Jiro sets out to build a sleek and speedy fighter, and he tests it initially without a single gun, bomb, or bullet on board. If he has any nationalism within him, it is absent in this depiction. He just wants to build a beautiful plane. It is a fascinating theme – and one that the film explores with impressive depth, despite its rather perfunctory treatment of the ensuing war.

Still from "The Wind Rises"

In fact, Jiro experiences two sad and beautiful love stories – the first with his planes, and the second with his long-time love, Naoko (Emily Blunt). After meeting at a young age during the earthquake, the two carry on a lengthy courtship that eventually blossoms into an enduring romance. This relationship is really only given time to breathe in its later years, but it conveys some remarkably tender moments between the two. This relationship, like that of Jiro and Honjo, is depicted mostly from Jiro’s own perspective. Naoko is offscreen for the majority of the film, and yet, as the story advances through the years, the couple’s history convincingly hangs over their every interaction. And while this love story exists as a separate force and feeling from Jiro’s own drive toward designing the perfect plane, the two romances often mingle in interesting ways. A late scene depicts Jiro working at his drawing desk while Naoko rests on the floor beside him. He operates his slide rule with one hand while tenderly clutching Naoko’s outstretched palm with the other. It is a sweet moment, and one of many for this pair.

Once the film gets into Jiro’s story, it really finds its footing – but this is after a very rough first act in which it quotes a French poem so many times that it begins to lose all meaning both as the source of the film’s title, and as its explicitly stated theme. Le vent se lève, il faut tenter de vivre. The wind is rising, we must try to live. This poem is broad enough that it could be taken to endorse basically any position. But given that it is followed by the aforementioned earthquake and inferno, its application in the film seems clear and deliberate. Chaos, death, and destruction will ensue no matter what you do, and the best you can do is to live your life and try your best to do something valuable. But try not to think too hard about how you might be contributing to that first thing. I don’t wish to belabor this point, but the film invites this sort of introspection by essentially glossing over both the ultimate fates of several characters, as well as the entirety of World War II. It screeches to a halt and fast-forwards to the end of the war, and we see another charred countryside, identical to the one from earlier in the film (and evocative, perhaps deliberately, of another Studio Ghibli film, Grave of the Fireflies). And perhaps that’s what it all added up to in the end. The first conflagration was the accidental product of a natural disaster. The second was a deliberate invention of mankind. Another great and wondrous thing, crafted for the ages.

Ultimately, despite its bumps, The Wind Rises is a mature and thoughtful tale. It offers a treatment of scientific progress as a pure and desirable dream, even if it is sometimes driven by impure or destructive motives. The dreamers won’t be around forever – but their dreams live on, one way or another.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

SIFF Roundup: “Only Yesterday”, “Fat Kid Rules The World”

Poster for "Only Yesterday"
Written and directed by Isao Takahata

Studio Ghibli’s 1991 film Only Yesterday, from writer/director Isao Takahata and producer Hiyao Miyazaki, was a theatrical hit in Japan, but has not made it to US theatrical or home release. And after seeing it, I certainly have a guess why. This quiet, reflective film about childhood is conceived through the narrative lens and perspective of an adult woman, Taeko (voiced by Miki Imai), looking back upon her years in primary school. It is not precisely a film for adults or a film for children, and as such must be incredibly difficult to market.

Like every Ghibli film, the hand-drawn animation is simply gorgeous. There is a magnificent array of emotion visible on the children’s faces – when the young Taeko (voiced by Youko Honna) gives you the stink-eye, you’ll know it. Likewise, when she’s trying desperately to affect enjoyment while eating an unripe (but expensive) pineapple, you’ll know it. The resulting “performances” would be breathtaking coming from child actors, and are masterful works of art here. There is also a clever animated framing device wherein the adult Taeko imagines her childhood self and classmates literally following her around as she heads out to the countryside for a bit of agro-tourism. This leads to a heartbreakingly beautiful moment at the film’s end in which she is forced to make an important choice.

Unfortunately, the only weak link is the adult Taeko. Apart from her recent breakup and monotonous office job, we never really get to know her beyond her obsessive navel-gazing. So her dilemma about how to continue her relatively aimless life does not resonate nearly as well as it could if we had a better idea of how this vivacious 10-year-old became the woman that we see before us.

While the Japanese countryside is rendered with staggering beauty (even the reflections in pothole puddles are gorgeous), this narrative gulf between the two versions of Taeko is enough to hold back the “present day” (1980s) material from being nearly as interesting as it is pretty. Conversely, the childhood (1960s) sequences are exciting and rife with nostalgia (watch for an appearance by the Beatles singing in Japanese*!). The soundtrack is marvelous and expansive, ranging from classical tunes (including one of my favorites, Brahms’ Hungarian Dance) to more contemporaneous selections, including a lovely Japanese rendition of Bette Midler’s “The Rose“, which is put to great use.

Despite its shortcomings, Only Yesterday is an earnest and heartfelt character piece, well worth seeing if you can find it in the US (apparently it’s available on Region 2 DVD on Amazon).

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

* CORRECTION: Upon further research, I was unable to find any record of The Beatles actually performing in Japanese, (although there seem to be a fair number of Japanese Beatles cover bands!). The Beatles are mentioned by name during this montage, but the song appears to be “Omoide No Nagisa“, a 1966 song by The Wild Ones (source).

Poster for "Fat Kid Rules The World"
Directed by Matthew Lillard
Written by Michael M.B. Galvin and Peter Speakman, based on the novel by K.L. Going

I’ve rolled my eyes on multiple occasions while reading the end-of-year Top 10 lists from various NYC and Chicago critics, as they invariably include one locally shot gem that thoroughly sums up the ineffable experience of living in their precious city. I never wanted to be that guy. And yet, director Matthew Lillard has forced my hand with an adaptation that is so quintessentially Seattle in its depiction of lovable losers and their various musical hopes and dreams, it would be against my very nature to dislike it.

Troy Billings (Jacob Wysocki) is an overwei- well, a fat kid – who decides to end it all by stepping in front of a downtown bus. He gets shoved out of the way at the last second by Marcus (Matt O’Leary), a strung-out, hyperactive kid who may or may not attend Troy’s school, and who immediately demands $20 in exchange for his lifesaving act. Wysocki’s performance is nicely understated, and the character is written with a deft understanding of being an adolescent outcast. But the real scene-stealer is O’Leary, whose performance strikes just the right blend of instability, delusion, and charisma. Marcus is, to all outward appearances, a homeless, unreliable, loser drug addict. For all of his promises about upcoming shows at Neumos – a fairly prestigious real-life Seattle venue just three blocks from the theater in which I saw this film – all of his grand plans to form a punk band with Troy seem like nothing but self-serving fantasy.

And yet, despite Troy’s credible degree of self-awareness about the situation, he is still swept up in the power and dangerous allure of the music world. The film has a darkly comedic streak throughout, but I would largely call it a drama, especially due to the treatment of Troy’s father, whom we know only as Mr. Billings (Billy Campbell). Campbell (whom I’ll admit I mistook for Ray Liotta in his first scene) gives an outstanding performance as Troy’s father, an ex-Marine and widower. Mr. Billings is a complicated hardass, to put it mildly. He loves his boys and misses his wife, and he’s deeply worried about his son’s choice of friends. And yet, he seems committed to doing the right thing, even if that means potentially taking on Marcus as the undeniable burden that he will be. I can’t overstate how refreshing I find this character and performance. I’ve seen such a staggering number of boring, one-note hardass fathers on film over the years (hell, Fred Ward has made a career out of playing them!). To see such a fresh and credible take on the character strikes me as nothing short of miraculous.

Fat Kid is a marvelous study in contradictions. It exemplifies the lonely and depressing experience of being an adolescent outsider, and yet feels incredibly empowering and uplifting by the end. It celebrates the complex notion of doing right by the people in our lives, even if they seem almost certain to disappoint us. As a musical coming-of-age film, it makes a nice pairing with Almost Famous.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10