Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Up in the Air: THE WIND RISES


Master animator Hayao Miyazaki is one of the greats. His films are built from such beautiful enchantment, a deep reverence for childlike wonder and natural beauty imbued with an unerring eye for the fantastic and magical. In The Wind Rises, which he claims will be his final film, he’s working in what is for him atypical territory. It’s a biopic, a portrait of early-20th century Japanese aeronautic engineer Jiro Horikoshi, a man dreaming of building wondrous airplanes, who finds his desires cultivated and ultimately turned towards destructive ends by the Japanese government. This is weighty material to be sure, but Miyazaki does not abandon his touch for magic. Here we are not dealing with fantasy as it grows inevitably out of reality, like in Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro, his best. Instead, the film concerns itself with dreams as they’re slowly brought down to earth. The only magic here is cinematic, a uniquely Miyazaki view onto a very real world.

It’s a cliché to say a picture is worth a thousand words. But such well-worn sentiment is true for such an artist as Miyazaki, who packs his hand-drawn frames with gorgeous detail, his screenplays filled up with pregnant pauses and aching silences that shouts volumes upon volumes as they ripple across delicately waving grass, clouds drifting slowly through the sky, waves slowly washing to shore. He manages to communicate worlds of depth and weight without stooping to anything so common as photorealism. Where the animators at Pixar and the like push CGI towards perfection and anime studios go for pop art exaggeration, Miyazaki calmly and confidently builds entire universes in beautiful brush strokes that are perfectly situated. They’re heartfelt and natural, smoothly articulating all we need know about a setting. In The Wind Rises there’s a view of a woman holding an umbrella, standing in the middle of a field on a sunny day. The sky is so very blue, the soft breeze gently tugging at the plants and at her dress. It’s such painterly perfection – like a Monet slowly sliding to life – it took my breath away.

In this film, we’re seeing Japan between the world wars. There’s closely observed history here. The convincing reality of the imagery, like that shot of the woman in the field, is simply astonishing. But there are also vivid daydreams of planes flying with great beauty, dreams that we see shift into daymares of rotting destruction, squirming bombs, and fire. It’s an echo of disaster to come as we follow Jiro intrepidly leaving his home for bigger and better things. He’s off to get his education, then to work as one of many designing planes at a government plant. His innovative designs would become the fighter planes plunged into Allied hardware and soldiers, kamikazes turning engineering brilliance into manned bombs. And so a man’s greatest creation can be perverted into a country’s insidious weapon. This is not something literally presented in The Wind Rises, but in the elegiac plumes of smoke that haunt his visions of the future, and in the painful flashes of warfare’s billowing destruction we see near the film’s conclusion.

The reality of his compromised creativity is made real. It’s all the more forceful for the way Miyazaki refuses to linger upon it. It’s a film about the beauty and elegance of a perfect machine smoothly gliding on the wind with satisfying swooshes, created for only that purpose. Jiro and his close engineer friends have separated their creations from their ultimate intended warfare purpose. So, too, does the film, as Miyazaki is able to appreciate the accomplishments unblemished. Until, that is, inevitable tragedy slips in around the edges. Poverty, disease, and eventually the war arrive. Miyazaki is equally interested, in any case, in the dramatic facts of this man’s life. We see family dynamics, romance, colleagues, bosses, and mentors. Soft and moving relationship melodrama sits right next to terrific procedural design and manufacturing maneuverings. To romance a woman and to bring forth radical new designs are rather comparable tasks in the bravery required, or so the juxtapositions tell us. We see dramatic incidents of a variety of kinds, from negotiations with German engineers to a painful medical diagnosis.

An early harrowing moment finds the young man caught up in an earthquake, the ground drawn to appear roiling under the force of the shaking ground. Buildings lift in waves. A train derails spectacularly. Fires ripple outward through the decimated city. It’s at once a vividly constructed historical event, an important character beat, and a mournful foreshadowing of destruction to come. The earthquake is bound up in the character’s journey to start his life on the path he’s chosen and inextricably linked with his meeting a girl who grows important to him. Like his planes, a source of great beauty and satisfaction, and also great damage and terror, good follows bad, soaring success and crashing tragedy sit side by side.

That’s what makes the film so bittersweet. It’s a deeply felt tale of a driven creative type, his passions and loves of many kinds. And yet it’s also a story about a man for whom the greatest successes are at once noteworthy and lamentable. His greatness is swept up in the march of time that leaves human lives scrambling to do good, pressing forward against the winds of change. Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises doesn’t soar as high as his greatest films. And yet, in its blend of earthy pragmatism and flights of hopeful aspiration, each and every frame considered thoughtfully and fully felt, it’s as textured and tremendous a picture as he’s ever painted. 

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