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by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

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Watching “The Wind Rises”

By Sara Foss
Thursday, March 13, 2014

The final film from legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, “The Wind Rises” is strikingly beautiful but also unsettling, a dreamy, ambiguous biopic about the engineer who developed fighter planes used by the Japanese Empire in World War II. Days after seeing “The Wind Rises,” I can’t decide if the film confronts a dark chapter in Japanese history, or whitewashes that history. Maybe it does a little bit of both.

Animation-wise, “The Wind Rises” is as captivating as anything in the Miyazaki canon, with flying scenes that are intricate, kinetic and colorful. It’s also Miyazaki’s most adult film, and lacks the fantastical creatures and wise children who typically populate his films. At times, the film feels like a cross between an old-fashioned romantic melodrama and a quirky fable about a plucky artist determined to bring his vision to fruition. In other words, this is not a film for kids, who might be bored by movie’s more languorous passages, which often involve watching the engineer, named Jiro Horikoshi, study airplane designs and offer his thoughts on rivets and fuselage. At its most basic level, “The Wind Rises” is an especially elegant and visual stunning ode to science and math.

But it’s a lot more than that, and I sometimes wondered whether Miyazaki had bitten off more than he could chew. The film opens when Horikoshi (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a boy in rural Japan, eagerly reading aviation magazines, stargazing and dreaming of the day he can build airplanes of his own. At his first job, where he’s assigned to build a fleet new airplane for the military, he’s regarded as a genius, so consumed by his work that he neglects his personal life. When he later announces that he’s engaged, his boss roars with laughter, saying, “We thought you would marry an airplane!”

The trouble with Horikoshi’s chosen profession is that it involves visiting Nazi Germany to learn about the country’s superior aircraft, and developing planes that will later be used in World War II. (Horikoshi designed the A6M Zero plane, which was used to attack Pearl Harbor.)

Horikoshi is smart enough to recognize that his planes will one day be used to kill and destroy, but too devoted to his dreams to quit his work and flee the country. His compromised position — and the lovely yet eerie footage of military planes soaring overhead — casts a pall over the film. You root for Horikoshi to succeed, knowing all the while that destruction and warfare are just around the corner. And not always just around the corner: Miyazaki shows us the horrors of the present, and foreshadows what is to come. We see the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which devastated Tokyo, fiery airplane crashes, and a shadowy glimpse of a night raid by German secret police. Never have death, disaster and big industrial machines looked so pretty.

“The Wind Rises” has stirred debate in Japan, and also among film critics in America. One film critic, Inkoo Kang, read a statement at the Boston Society of Film Critics’ annual meeting calling the film morally repugnant, and later wrote, in an article in The Village Voice, “‘The Wind Rises’ perpetuates Japanese society’s deliberate misremembering and rewriting of history, which cast the former Empire of the Rising Sun as a victim of World War II, while glossing over — or in some cases completely ignoring — the mass death and suffering its military perpetrated.”

Others have jumped to the film’s defense. Film critic David Ehrlich writes that “The Wind Rises” is “less of a biopic than it is a devastatingly honest lament for the corruption of beauty, and how invariably pathetic the human response to that loss must be.”

I tend to side with the defenders of “The Wind Rises,” though I think Miyazaki’s portrayal of Horikoshi has its flaws. For one thing, Horikoshi is depicted as saintly, almost morally pure, which makes it easier to overlook the death and violence to which he inevitably contributed. Throughout his career, Miyazaki has shied away from telling stories with conventional villains — his films are more likely to feature misguided creatures causing problems than malevolent schemers and criminals — and perhaps “The Wind Rises” is just another iteration of his humanistic world view, where nobody is truly evil but great crimes, mistakes and misunderstandings will inevitably occur. This attitude is refreshing in Miyazaki’s other films, such as “Nausicca of the Valley of the Wind” and “Spirited Away,” but seems a little inadequate for a film about a real man who built a horribly destructive aircraft.

On the other hand, Miyazaki doesn’t completely sidestep questions of moral responsibility, and at the end of the film Horikoshi indicates that he regrets how his planes were ultimately used. Is this moment of reflection enough? Probably not.

“The Wind Rises” isn’t Miyazaki’s greatest film, and I’m not even sure it would make my top five. But it might be his most thought-provoking and personal film. And of course it looks terrific. Fans of Miyazaki — and animation in general — shouldn’t miss it.

Got a comment? Email me at sfoss@dailygazette.net.

 
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