Animation, like youth, is wasted on the young. What CGI opened up for adult-oriented films was always available in cels and paint. Wide audiences would not broadly accept mature stories with realistically rendered figures. Where the viewer has to relax their sense of reality, most will always rebel against it. It’s true of science fiction, fantasy, action, horror, and it is especially true of animation. The same thing has happened for films in black and white or the stylized acting that often went with it. How often do people seek out films or television precisely because they are said to be a “true story”? The Wind Rises (2013), from “the Walt Disney of Japan”, Hayao Miyazaki, in what he says will be his final film, shows us what we’ve all been missing this past century with a film about vision, drive, love, and war. It is dynamic and imaginative and real. It’s even based on a true story.
Jiro Horikoshi (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) dreams of planes. His vision is poor, so he knows he will never fly, but his hero, Italian designer Caproni (Stanley Tucci), assures him in a dream that the engineer need never leave the ground to create beautiful machines. It becomes Jiro’s ambition, then, to become a great airplane engineer. On his way back to university, an enormous earthquake strikes that destroys Tokyo, during which he helps a young girl, Nahoko Satomi (Emily Blunt), get safely home. After school, he becomes the star designer at an aeronautical firm with his friend Honjô (John Krasinski) under the angry (though good natured) eye of the diminutive Kurokawa (Martin Short). Honjô and Jiro travel through Europe, learning from the Germans and others, learning how to convert Japan’s outdated wood-and-paper planes into the flying fortresses made in the West. When Jiro reconnects with the terminally ill Nahoko, the two fall in love, but with her companionship Jiro is inspired to realize his dream, the Zero.
Had The Wind Rises been a live action film, it would be the front-runner for Best Picture this year. It is also one of the best biopics of all time. I was very ambivalent about seeing this movie. There was some sense of obligation to see the final work of a man as revered as Miyazaki, but also trepidation over wasting my time with a medium (anime) that I neither understand nor appreciate. In my mind, anime is rife with fetishized young girls who giggle like dolphins and dopey boys constantly tripping over things. The Wind Rises is far closer to Hergé‘s Tintin cartoons in both style and content. The story, as you can see from the premise, is as mature as any and it is delivered masterfully.
Most of the film is portrayed “normally”. Characters walk from place to place, they eat food, get caught in the rain, and do ordinary things. The cinematography is terrific even apart from the quality of the drawing. Action flows beautifully and the ‘camera’ pans or pivots very like you’d see in a live action film, but my point is that it is mostly mainstream in terms of the language of film. Where The Wind Rises exceeds live action is in transitioning into the realm of dreams seamlessly. Because of CGI and the lightness of modern cameras has come so far that The Wind Rises could be made as a live action film. The Aviator (2004) and its mid-air stylings frequently come to mind, but The Wind Rises has a quality in its animation that goes further.
During the film, I sometimes forgot that I was watching animation. This is a normal story about actual humans, so I began to think of these characters not unlike I would if I were reading a novel. In my mind, the scenes would change into live action settings. I kept thinking, “That would look so beautiful against real clouds” or “This would be so touching with a full human face to act this out.” That might sound like a limitation, but in a way my imagination filled in the holes and projected a clearer, better film than could possibly have been made. Animation can create a shared dream, provide a full outline for us to translate for ourselves. All the pieces were there. Elements of screwball comedy, stark social and historical commentary, a message for peace with the maturity to accept that we can believe in peace while knowingly acting against it.
The Wind Rises is an epic story about the history of aviation and a country’s inexorable path towards war. From the start, which silently surveys Jiro’s childhood town, you can tell that this is a thoughtful film directed at an older audience. As a period piece, it reminds me of some early wartime films like From Here to Eternity (1953) where the war is an intrusion on real life and is, thus, an evil. There are also scenes set on trains, working at drafting tables, or where characters become violently ill. What else can I tell you to convince you that this is a normal great movie? Listen to that the score from Joe Hisaishi. It sounds like something out of an Italian epic. There’s more. There’s the dynamic of the characters which feels so familiar, like it’s a film from the 1950’s with the grumpy but lovable boss, the good friend and competitor working along parallel lines, and, of course, the doomed love story. This is what The Grandmaster (2013) should have been.
The current state of animated films, completely entrenched in breathtaking CGI, is often judged on the ability of the film to fully appeal to older audiences. The presence of naughty jokes the kiddies won’t understand isn’t enough. There have to be themes that strike both young and old on the same chord and help us understand each other better. Underneath that is the desire for animated films to be, essentially, adult. The Wind Rises is not for children. Its PG-13 rating is, if not fully deserved, descriptive of its best audience. A young person is no more equipped to understand The Wind Rises than they are The Right Stuff (1983). This is the movie that Hugo (2011) should have been.
As my final barrage, I will say that those movies mentioned here are good predictors of your enjoying The Wind Rises. It’s in wide release next Friday. Please check it out.
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