This post will be dense, partly because so many feelings and thoughts occupy my mind begging for analysis pertaining to my recent viewing of Hayao Miyazaki's final film, The Wind Rises and partly because it aroused within me a concern for how we look upon works of art and how we are conditioned to look at art in a certain manner. This all is unified, quite curiously, because I feel that the essence of The Wind Rises is about how Miyazaki, himself, perceived what seemed to be his hero in Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of the infamous Zero aircraft that became the lethal missile it was as the kamikaze vehicle (kamikaze, for your information, means, "Spirit Wind," in Japanese). If there was ever a flaw that Miyazaki articulated in his surreal film about Jiro, it might be that he was too much of an idealist.
I mentioned an intriguing point to my friend after we both watched the film: in the film Jiro dreams of being with his hero, Caproni, and of what his hero would say to him. Caproni mentions that his planes should never be used to fight but will be anyways. This is a direct echo of what Jiro is told by his mother at the very start of the film, who says there is no justification for fighting. Knowing that, don't you think that in his dreams, Jiro is projecting his own philosophy onto his recreation of Caproni? I mean, Caproni always refers to Jiro as the, "Japanese boy," even though he is grown up at the end of the film. Do you think Caproni really is like that? So, do you think that Caproni's representation is only the reflection of Jiro's mental state and evolution of his passion? Now, take this a step further and ask yourself, do you think Miyazaki is projecting his own ideals of Jiro onto film the same way Jiro is projecting his ideals within his dreams? I'd say there is a good argument for that and I trust that Miyazaki knows this possible phenomenon and he drips his fantastically personal and somewhat factual story with melancholy.
I bring this up because I feel like this is the heart of the controversy surrounding the film that seems to be glossed over, something that the media as done time and time again in recent memory, being unsettled by stories about characters that go against our progressive thinking today (thinking that...well...may need some reflection and discussion). It's as if stories are not allowed to enter into worlds we think are bad or offensive or...the key word here...ambiguous. The Wolf of Wall Street follows Jordan Belfort's sexed and drugged up lollapalooza of financial domination and Zero Dark Thirty observes the coldness of Maya as she hunts down the man, the symbol, of American austerity. In this Miyazaki film, something similar happens and, just like these other films, audiences are hesitant to praise it because of some sort of social consequence. So, I'll save the ranting for the end (and boy do I have a rant) and now focus more on the film and what it does to convey a intensely personal message of one of the greatest Japanese filmmakers, a Japanese filmmaker who I would unflinchingly put alongside the 'Three Masters,' Kurosawa, Ozu, and Mizoguchi. Hopefully, even without the rant, this will convince you that, once again, these films are crafted with enough intelligence to go beyond such criticism and be works that express a curious ambiguity that, to me, strengthens the human condition.
Jiro Creates Dreams, So Does Miyazaki
There are a lot of f-bombs, naked women, and drugs in Jordan Belfort's story. Likewise, there is a lot of detachment and austerity in Maya's manhunt. Many people who come out of the theatre wonder why in the hell these films functioned in such an unapologetic manner, sometimes leading to superficial criticism. What many people seem to ignore is one of the most fundamental narrative elements in storytelling: perspective. Perspective as a narrative tool drives the tone of the story as well as what we are able to witness in a film but, almost as importantly, what we don't see in a film. Without getting to involved with the other aforementioned films, much of the opposition derives from this lack of access to things they want to see (the victims of fraud and the victims of torture) yet the perspective of the story, specified to one character (with the exception, sometimes, of several scenes), denies viewers of the option, and we are left to cling onto a personality we may not agree with.
The opening shots of The Wind Rises are in the dreams of our protagonist, Jiro, whose fascination with the flying machine coupled with his lack of knowledge, results in an ideal birdlike plane with feathered fingers at the tip of the wings facing off against a quagmired zeppelin, sooted and dark. These machines could easily be connected to many of the Miyazaki's earlier films, particularly Nausicaa and Castle in the Sky. It is more important, right now, to contemplate that the viewer is thrusted into a historical film through a character's dreams. That is not the best way to assure your audience that this is all fact (even though, let us not forget, it doesn't even say it is based on a true story). It is in the second dream sequence where we meet his hero, Caproni, and Caproni and Jiro begin talking with each other, with Caproni showing the young Jiro his latest aircrafts (which, if you are keeping score, look a lot like the planes of Porco Rosso). The dialogue between the two should already be a point of suspicion based on the acknowledgment of perspective. Indeed, taking into account the second paragraph of this essay, one could deduce that Jiro is talking to himself, or, more elaborately, his ideal vision of Caproni based upon his own experiences, mindsets, and what he reads in his english magazines. Or, hell, maybe his idealization of what he wants to be in the future where Caproni is merely a facade.
The dream sequences that heavily populate the film formulate a surreal edge to this otherwise realistic (by Miyazaki standards) historical fiction film. There are even moments in the film where we do not know if what we are looking at is a dream or real. As Jiro helps save the books from the burning library during the hellfire earthquake, we see a cut from the 'real' to a shot of Caproni asking Jiro a question in which it cuts back to Jiro in reality answering. Such casual transitioning plays upon the established idea, established in the first scene, that we are viewing this world through the eyes and mind of a man caught up in his romanticized dreams of creating dreams. The film never strays from this practice, even when it strays from Jiro momentarily to focus on Naoko or Kayo (the typical, but awesome, 'Miyazaki girl').
What is essentially going on is Miyazaki applying a dreamscape to narrative realism; the story of this film is deeply rooted in historical fact...an element that even expects the viewer to understand that as not much is explained as time passes (Japanese viewers would be familiar, of course). The dreamscape is a Miyazaki norm, where worlds are constructed from the ground up that reflect a certain thematic significance that parallels the actual story. Think of the worlds of Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle, and Princess Mononoke. They provide a visual blueprint of the narrative's nuance and themes, reflecting real-world connotation amid the dazzling details of strange, imaginative, and wondrous realms.
Besides the approach of realism in this film, the major difference between the role of these constructed landscapes in his other films and this one is that this is the dreamscape of Jiro, not Miyazaki, or, the dreamscape of Miyzaki's perception of Jiro (this seems a little confusing, but what I mean is that the dreamscape is not made from scratch by Miyazaki, Jiro is still the foundation for the dreamscapes that we see in the film). What we observe is not necessarily a new world the protagonist must enter but a world by which the protagonist has crafted and placed as a reaction to his real world interactions. His ambitions for designing planes is now the same thing as saying his determination to fully realize his idealization of his dreams...which is what creative spirit essentially is. Miyazaki fixates the perspective of the narrative on Jiro as a mechanism to illustrate, quite beautifully, this characterization, where the dreamscape and the real landscape are always in dynamic interplay. Thus, the absence of the real destructive force of the Zero plane shouldn't really be justified by any literal means, it is all set up at the very beginning as an intimate exploration into one man's dreams and one man's reality. The film remains consistent throughout.
Art, Passion, and Socioeconomic Context
There are derivative shots of the act of creating throughout the film, their meaning lies far beyond the scope of the story and lay firmly in the personal ambitions of Miyazaki himself. Consider early on in Jiro's employment at Mitsubishi. When he is enthralled by the shape of a fishbone and begins to sketch it on graph paper, a closeup details the elegant curvature that captures Jiro's imagination. Several times, we see closeups of him writing equations or using the slide rule; there is heavy attention to these moments as we join in on Jiro's meticulousness and focus, laying our eyes on each and every hand movement and what these movements eventually produce on paper. Miyazaki admires these movements, the act of creating something...in other words, we view these shots of designing an airplane as an artistic excursion. Later in the film, when Naoko returns into the diegesis, we encounter her perched on top of a rolling, grassy hill painting a landscape. Cut to a closeup of her hand stroking the canvas with a palette knife in a similar movement as Jiro's hand when sketching the fishbone. Again, the same attention to detail that only becomes crucial as part of a pattern of repeated shots throughout the film.
So, even within the film's narrative and visual structure, there are parallels between the art of plane design and the art of painting; both Jiro and Naoko have their own workstations. The parallel extends beyond the narrative and communicate with the director explicitly. Miyazaki's art is created in the same way, literally. Jiro's workstation can easily be transported to an animation studio. Moreover, the intrinsic characteristics of designing a plane and creating animations (not so much with painting, unfortunately) align with each other in that what is produced on paper is inanimate yet the ultimate goal of a plane designer and animator is to bring to life the inanimate skeleton that remains fixated in the restraining two-dimensional world of the paper.
Moreover, there is also an attempt to depict everyday objects as sources of inspiration. Besides the fishbone, there is one curious shot when Jiro and Naoko walk among the hard rain under an umbrella. As they discuss if the umbrella is doing its job there is a closeup of the underbelly of the umbrella, showing the pole and the ribs that extend outward from it in all directions. Within this narrative, it looks curiously like the ribs used for wings. Although it is not as apparent as the fishbone, one could imply a moment for Jiro as he looks up at the umbrella and directs his attention away from Naoko for a moment and back onto his planes. I will assume at this point (as in I have no evidence) that Miyazaki looks upon everyday objects with the same creative scrutiny. And when we bring back the significance of dreams, the realization of Jiro's dreams start with the paper and the same goes with Miyazaki. Between the sketch and the test flight, between the sketch and the final cut, they conceive about how the animated dream will function.
Now, this act of creating that is carefully and gracefully exhibited within the narrative is within a a historical socioeconomic framework (really, all Miyazaki films fall into this framework). In this case, it is pre-war imperial nationalism that continuously hovers over Jiro and his work. This creates an unfortunate difficulty in the way Jiro's authentic passion for building dreams conflicts with aggressive national sentiment and militaristic efficiency. The narrative clearly explains the undesirable position of Japan. The titanic earthquake hit in 1923 which was proceeded by financial depression. Japan was economically behind many of the superpowers and then some and there was a clamoring among the population to search for some new national identity that went through obfuscation in the first several decades of the 20th century, all as a fallout during the late 19th century attempt to westernize and with the dilution of traditional Japanese mentality (Edo period mentality, the samurai code[s], etc). Jiro's career was in part dictated by the historical events proceeding him. It is in his dream that Caproni first tells the young Jiro that their planes will be used for warfare. Was this Jiro's underlying doubt about his dream fueled by memories of World War I? This isn't necessarily explained but what is depicted is the narrowing path Jiro must take to appease the powers that be who, over the years following the depression, concocted a mentality of imperial angst constituting the bastardization of the bushido code.
There is the artistic idea of the, "death of the author," where, in general, once a piece has been made and broadcasted to the public then the piece is no longer the author's but the people's to interpret and mold. The author cannot control the thoughts and interpretations the audience has on the piece once it has been released. Of course, this can be generalized to an artist and even a plane designer. Jiro was developing a practical vehicle at a time when Japan was looking to catch up with other countries and bolster its pride. Now, I only believe in this 'death' to some extent but if there was ever an example that endorsed such an analysis it would be this situation. No matter the idealization of Jiro's dreams, was there ever any chance he could make planes without performing in favor of the militaristic regime that dominated the country? The followup question would be something along the lines of: was Jiro's dreams potent enough to propel (pun intended) him forward and continue his work despite his knowledge of this consequence? It was an early discussion with his friend, Honjo, that the ironies of his work were laid out and then later on Jiro notes how they are just making planes but not weapons, as if by saying it out aloud would authenticate justification. It seemed like Jiro was destined to 'die' and relinquish his planes to the abhorrence of their intended use. Can we say the same for Miyazaki?
What we can conclude is that through the specific socioeconomic lens of the time period, people's perception of Jiro's dreams have them identifying them only as war machines. There is an artistry and there is an art. There is a fascination and curiosity with shapes, form, and structure. Yet it means nothing when no one acknowledges it in that manner. In one pivotal scene, when Jiro lays out his plans for the Zero to his design team, he mentions that the plane could reach optimized efficiency if it didn't have a machine gun. The team laughed hysterically as if that the mere existence of such an idea was impossible. If his planes would only be perceived in one way and one way only, then any perception Jiro holds becomes nullified. The act of designing and animating the inanimate may be a glorious and creative task, but when the piece is done, it is handed over to everyone else.
A Love As Fleeting As Dreams Deferred
It is safe to say that the love story in The Wind Rises is treated with an unconventional touch of fleetness, even when Jiro and Naoko are in close proximity to each other (after almost fifteen years) they still don't see each other as much as they could because Naoko is bedridden with a fever. The fragility of Naoko becomes a huge cost for the time given to share their love and, indeed, upon request of Kurokawa, they get married on a whim justifying such a decision by this limited time given to them. There is a tragic admiration for such situation; the two lovers are already aware of the fleeting nature of this relationship...a love as fragile as the planes on their first flight.
What does this mean though? Why does Miyazaki decide to employ this sort of dynamic? It is worth noting that Naoko never existed in the real life of Jiro, so great liberties are being taken to apply such a major part of the story. Is it a counterpoint to the unfortunate consequences of Jiro's passion? Is it a complement? I think I will analyze this mostly through feeling and tone, as I feel Jiro's passion and Jiro's love are approached in the same way and are used to invoke the same emotional effect.
As Jesse Cataldo says about the film in this review, the film never shies away from the melancholic coating of Jiro's career during a time that created many evils and uncertainty. Irony is always present and there is only a small degree to which Jiro has even the slightest chance to acknowledge that. With the nostalgic and Italian-inspired score of Joe Hisashi, the dream sequences and love scenes play almost like how we experience a good memory. There is the initial moment of happiness, transporting yourself back to the moment that you immediately cherished. Nostalgia eventually dominates as we realize this memory also reminds us of the impossibility of going back to this moment. Consider the bits and pieces of dialogue between not just Jiro and Naoko but Jiro and Caproni. There is the often utterances between the two lovers that their time is precious and the love between them is amplified and more defined. Even before it was known of Naoko terminal illness, their first exchanges since the earthquake hinted at a fleeting nature. When Jiro remarks that Naoko's painting had been ruined by the rain, she remarks that is doesn't matter, she will remember this painting as the memory she had with him that day.
More curiously, however, is Jiro's conversations with Caproni (which, to make it complicated, may just be conversations with himself). Caproni's speeches are always laden with cynicism that there will always be opposition against creating planes for the pure beauty of watching them fly. He mentions to Jiro the idea that you only have ten years to produce your greatest work. After that, you will never return to such creative prowess. The same could be said about Jiro's time with Naoko. Just as we began the film with a dream, we end the film with a dream, a dream that culminates the loss Jiro has accrued in the last ten years. It is a moment of true blissful surrealism.
As I watched, I felt a saddening wonderment underlined by a hint of anxiety. Things were fading away for Jiro, both his planes and Naoko, into the past. He is forever burdened and forever grateful for the memory of these moments that swiftly move with the wind. The concept of love in this film is that it is fragile and, as pointed out earlier, the fragility of these planes and more unfortunately the fragility of Naoko (recall the shocking scene of her blood spilling onto the canvas...a shot that could also be related to the aforementioned shots showing Jiro sketch). I found Naoko's decision to leave Jiro and die away from him to be piercingly tragic yet undeniably Japanese (honor came into play in the decision, I assume), but this moment of passing means more than just the passing of Naoko. It represents, maybe, a dream deferred, an ideal life that could of been had but it seems that, under the circumstances, was always conflicting with the world around it. This somber tone outlining many of the more internal themes (like of art and passion that I mentioned above) bears a heavy anti-war message, albeit subtle. Nevertheless, it does not and should not necessitate any visualization of victims pertaining to Jiro's creations.
Of Course, There Is the Animation
You know, I wonder how many people watched this and thought this could have been done, maybe more effectively, as a live-action film. Maybe nobody thought that and that was just a volatile reaction stemming from my insecurity...anyways, there is a reason this story works so well as an animation and I think it has to do with surreal nature of the film and its constant exploration with dreams. I marveled at the colorful planes that glistened with the soft grass. One shot remains prominent in my mind of one of Caproni's planes taking off. The puffiness of the smoke squeezing out of the mufflers and the way it plays with the propellers as they begin to gain speed is a luscious feast for the eyes...there were many times where during my viewing of the film where my eyes were wide open and my mouth remained slightly opened.
Miyazaki is a master of invoking a certain tone with movement of shapes, disfiguring them to his liking just enough to invoke one feeling and then disfiguring enough to make a totally different meaning. Consider the earthquake scene, which also stands out as a remarkable auditory experience, as the landscape bends and folds in a gigantic ripple. It's shown with ferocious immediacy...it came and went and the destruction it left (and the fires it started) was devastating. And the wall of smoke that spawned soon after was musty in texture and deathly, holding immense weight with its shades of grey and a hint of hellish orange. Now consider one of the dream sequences where Caproni gives Jiro a tour of a gargantuan passenger plane that is in the middle of a festive party of unapologetic cheering and smiling. The plane amusingly morphs to compensate the fact that there are way too many people on the plane, also highlighted by the way in which the partiers burst out of every window. When Caproni and Jiro climb up onto the top of the plane via a ladder hatch, the hatch is immediately filled with partiers who burst like a pimple out of the hatch. The roundness and simplistic colors compliment the jovial Bacchian scene. It is a depiction of direct contrast to the earlier earthquake scene and it's anxiety-ridden realism.
Then there is also the cognitive reason that animation provides the viewers; the way in which we connect with the characters and are convinced of the feelings expressed. Motivated by the enlightening work of Scott McCloud, what animation does and what Miyazaki has capitalized his whole career with his fantastic characters is the amplification of emotions through simplification of visualization. In other words, the simplistic detail of Jiro's face or of Naoko's face allows the viewer to fill in the missing pieces of a certain feeling and, thus, allow more involvement from the audience. Thereby, hopefully, the feelings expressed by the characters will be amplified by the viewer's participation in adding their own familiarity of the feeling. Without getting into too much theory, this really stems from the idea that animated figures in anime, manga, comics, and the like are never drawn to look exactly like a real person and our cognition must compensate for this disparity.
From here on out I'll be forcefully raising my blood pressure in order to deliver a heated and passionate observation of the state of animation and how it has become defunct to the point where any sort of discussion is almost rendered worthless.
The main reason I watch the Oscars is that there is always a chance where the academy, with arguably the most famous awards ceremony, gives credit where credit is due. That is not another way of saying if they choose what I want them to choose then it is alright; I have favorites but good choices, mind you, are not limited to my choices. It is just when something like this and this happen I question the integrity of not just the Oscars but the film industry as a whole. Instead of tackling this whole problem let's just focus on one of the voter's explanations, where he or she stated that his interest in animated films stopped at the age of six. Great, as a voter for one of the most prestigious awards in all of cinema, the conclusion you make for animated films is that they are only made for kids. Nevermind the fact that animated films make up a huge part of the industry today (whether the films are good or not) and nevermind that they have a crucial place in cinema history (Sergei Eisenstein said his favorite film happened to be Snow White, there's also Fantasia, Yellow Submarine, Chuck Jones, Miyazaki, Chomet...you get the point), let us just ignore the creativity, the necessity, and the relevance of such a form of art that has been cast aside as childish and, by an incredible skill of logic, negligible.
Could it be that there is still a potent conditioning factor our American industry has weighed down on it's audience such that these artistic products can be marketed with directness and clarity? Animated films, according to the business, can only be marketed to younger folk. With this mindset, could you really fault the voter for uttering something that could only be interpreted as stupidly ignorant? Of course not. I mean, it is the job of that voter to watch the films given to them such that they can make an honest choice no matter the ignorant ideologies they uphold...it's not like the Oscars are prestigious, right? Let's take a look at the gravity of this statement from another angle. If the Oscars are about celebrating the brilliance of an art form, why distort such a vision by disrespecting the ceremony, one, and disrespecting the men and women who worked their asses off to do what they love and say what they want to say.
Now let's take a look at the other responses in bulk. Of course, this is only a limited scope into the minds of the voters but my accumulated observation tells me that none of them have any clear idea what the hell is going on in the animation category. None. Not one even mentioned the existence of an ambiguous, certainly not for kids, feature made by Miyazaki. Of course, I'm relentlessly bias, and I will say that I have not seen Frozen either. Fine, you can flog me afterwards, but hear me out. Whether or not Frozen is a good film, can you really praise it for its originality? I mean, wasn't it just a year ago that Disney came out with a very similar film called Brave? How different are they and in what ways is Frozen better? Is Disney offering anything new here? Frozen might even be an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of a strong female character (which, by the way, has been Miyazaki's forte since 1984 with Nausicaa). If the voters had any inkling of understanding towards the films they should have watched anyways, shouldn't they be suspicious at how Miyazaki managed to make an animated film not for kids? Suspicious enough to watch it, maybe? Maybe not, and The Wind Rises suffers from two forms of prejudices now: it is an animated film and it is an animated film about a controversial figure that's not for kids.
Okay, so maybe original doesn't equate with good. Moreover, it is not that I do not like marketable trends in the film industry...I'm a huge fan of Hollywood's golden era which was dominated by marketable tropes left and right (though I would argue that I prefer those films because they are, inherently, different from what we see now in the mainstream). Nonetheless, what's the peril in bringing in and applauding a film that goes against the grain, makes us uncomfortable, and asks us to think as well as to feel? The Wind Rises is too good and too provocative to simply be ignored by academy voters who never look beyond their shorelines for animated stories. At the Oscars, there is always a chance to trampoline a film from obscurity, a good film, and into the limelight for further discussion and further observation from a wider audience. There is always a chance for the award to get people to notice a film that has come and changed the way we look at the world, or ourselves, or of cinema. This year had two chances, really, with the animated feature and the documentary feature (which is another story and just as tragic).
Whatever, maybe there are a lot fewer people who thought there was a chance for something other than Frozen to win and I hate that I am barraging it with my cynical comments but it is situated in the wrong place and at the wrong time. Between a suffocating perception of what animation is 'suppose' to do and the total lack of respect some people with too much authority have towards film and the art of expression through a visual medium, The Wind Rises has suffered from an almost irreversible wound of frightening idiocy. Don't tell me that, "Well, Frozen was good, so..." Is it safe to say that it is easier to predict what Frozen would entail than The Wind Rises?...and when we have people only watching the mainstream American film and not the Japanese film made, by the way, by one of the most celebrated filmmakers in the last twenty years, don't you think that's an unfortunate system we made ourselves, where we are so accustomed to only see what is brought to us on a silver platter. We've been conditioned to not explore what else is out there and question the status quo (please bear in mind that questioning is not the same thing as defying or rebelling). Ultimately, we can only go so far as to see the mixed reception of such a complicated and beautiful film that reduces to a certain shallow paranoia akin to how people are reacting to The Wolf of Wall Street and Zero Dark Thirty.
I'll stop now...rant over.