It’s a happy accident that I saw animation Oscar nominees The Wind Rises, by Hayao Miyazaki, and Jennifer Lee’s Frozen almost back to back. The comparison between the two films both in the way they are made and told highlights themes that run through Miyazaki’s film: the disparities between Japanese and Western culture and technological achievements; how the former yearns to be like the latter, but the feeling isn’t reciprocated; how it’s a strained relationship that at the best of times is an alliance based on mutual benefit, certainly not appreciation, much less love, on the part of the West.
Frozen is so much the bookies’ favorite to win that the other nominees should spare themselves the tux rentals and not bother showing up. The Wind Rises is the runner up, way behind in the odds, but still at a respectable distance; it isn’t impossible that the Academy might choose to recognize Miyazaki’s extraordinary lifetime achievement over Disney’s never-ending hegemony and cause an upset. However, Miyazaki announced his retirement after making The Wind Rises but then withdrew that statement, which means that is likely not his final oeuvre.
The challenge is that Frozen is in almost every aspect — especially technologically — the superior film. Disney has already confirmed plans for a Broadway show, which will run for decades, selling out over the holidays. My mother predicts tickets will go for four hundred bucks for the first few years. All of this and it is still playing in movie theaters — that’s a hit, baby.
However, as much as I enjoyed it, Frozen is also anodyne, formulaic in the truest sense of the term. Not a hair is out of place; it’s as perfect as a snowflake. The Wind Rises is none of that. It’s an impressionistic voyage into the mind of a visionary creative genius, a dreamscape about a dreamscape that unfolds as gracefully, exotically as a traditional Japanese emakimono narrative scroll painting. It is the maestro expressing and explaining who he is via a tribute biopic about the master of a completely different discipline: aeronautical engineering.
The Wind Rises is a completely unexpected choice for a creator of surreal children’s animation to make as his putative last film. To begin with, it’s not for children; I’m glad I didn’t take my young nieces, who went with me to Frozen and who are still singing its songs. The Wind Rises is more for a young-adult demo, with appeal for proper adults, like all of Miyazaki’s later works.
The story is a “highly fictionalized” (to use Wikipedia’s description) account of the early life of Jiro Horikoshi, a wunderkind chief engineer at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries who designed the iconic and groundbreaking A5M “Claude” and A6M Zero fighter jets for the Japanese military. (Let me just pause here to state what should be obvious to other reviewers and Wikipedia: all narrative biopics and plays about historical characters are by necessity “highly fictionalized.” They have been for over two thousand years, since Euripides and before. They condense years into a couple of hours. How else is it meant to be done other than by high fictionalization?)
In a 1920s Japan, young Jiro dreams of flying, but can’t become a pilot because he’s extremely nearsighted. Inspired in those dreams by legendary Italian plane designer Gianni Caproni, Jiro becomes an engineer instead. On his way to university in Tokyo, he is caught in the catastrophic Kanto earthquake of 1923. The disaster entwines his life with Naoko, who is traveling on the same train he’s on when the earthquake hits. It’s been noted by almost every reviewer in the West that this romantic subplot is the weakest part of the film, perhaps fatally weak, a rather trite device that links it spiritually to Frozen et al, even if this romance has the kind of decidedly unhappy ending full of mawkish self-sacrifice and semi-suicide that would never be allowed in Hollywood animation.
While the precise events of his life might be highly fictionalized, Jiro is drawn faithfully to who he was in real life. The result is a Japanese Tintin, an intrepid, inquisitive boy hero-ingénue – during the opening sequences when he’s a little boy, Jiro even wears traditional Japanese country schoolboy pantaloons that look more than vaguely like Tintin’s trademark plus-fours.
Miyazaki has often used steampunk elements in his work, most notably in Howl’s Moving Castle. He tips his hat to them now and then in The Wind Rises, and by doing so shows how his daydreams of Jiro Horikoshi dreaming about early aviation have informed so much of his animation’s anachronistic-technology aesthetic. Looking back at Miyazaki’s work, I now see him as a tightrope walker who carries his stories forward by balancing them both wobbly and deftly between the real and the fantastical, between Japanese culture and that period when Western culture was most Japanese in a mannered sense (the Victorian era through pre-World War II), and between the traditional four elements: wind, water, earth, fire.
The most delightful low-tech, anachronistic touch isn’t in the visuals but in the sound effects. The airplane engines, propeller noises and other early technology sounds are made by human voices, as if a bunch of grown-ups were pretending to be children pretending to be flying planes. Even the Kanto earthquake is aurally expressed not by the usual cracking and splintering of earth, but by a chorus of human voices moaning and groaning, as if the spirits in the land were being slowly tortured on the rack. It is a bold, effective, inventive technique that takes the viewer back to that time of pretend when he was a child. (Sorry, I forgot to throw ‘brilliant’ in that adjective salad.) I smiled so often that by the time they cranked the engine on the Claude and the chorus of sputtering engine lips sprang to life I burst out laughing.
I am a fan of Miyazaki as an artist and animator, but not as a storyteller. He’s no Hans Christian Andersen or Brothers Grimm. As a tale based in history, The Wind Rises is probably his most mature and accomplished from a narrative perspective, but he ruins it for the Western viewer with the hokey love story that is an unnecessary diversion. The Japanese, however, seem to love it and buy it; then again, they like many things that seem weird even to their fellow Asians, often particularly to their fellow Asians. The Wind Rises was the highest-grossing film at the Japanese box office last year, it will never do anywhere near that amount in the West, so if I were Miyazaki I would ignore the criticism of non-Japanese reviewers and err on the side of what pleases those audience members who don’t have to read the subtitles, or those who, more lazily, watch the version dubbed into English with Joseph Gordon-Levitt voicing Jiro.
Akira Kurosawa’s last film, Dreams, was based on his actual dreams. I sense Miyazaki’s deep bow to Kurosawa with The Wind Rises, as well as to the Japanese work ethic — Jiro doesn’t just have the vision and talent to be a true artist, he has the diligence and tenacity to become a great one, and that’s what it takes. That good-humored appreciation of the essential Japanese spirit also has more than a little Kurosawa to it.
After see this I also get a better feeling of modern Japanese storytelling techniques, particularly how reality, perspective and time can be drastically altered, jump forward and backward, with the mere opening of a door, the gust of a breeze over a field, or a simple random cut. From that angle, this film reminded me of Haruki Murakami writing Jiro’s story for young adults. However, I’m still fairly confident even Murakami would have left out the silly romance, not to mention the occasional lapse into history-class didacticism. Or would he?