Saturday, February 22, 2014

Film Review: The Wind Rises

"The Wind Rises" *** (out of ****)

"The Wind Rises" (2014) is an Oscar nominee in the animated feature film category at this year's Academy Awards directed by the legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki.

There have been reports, even by Miyazaki himself, that "The Wind Rises" will be his final feature film. Although Mr. Miyazaki has made this claim before when "Ponyo" (2009) was released. Still, if Mr. Miyazaki is sincere, it will be a great lost for the world of cinema.

I don't consider "The Wind Rises" a masterpiece as some are shouting. It is however an interesting, beautifully conceived film, which does showcase the exquisite style of Mr. Miyazaki's visual artistry. There are truly masterful moments which make "The Wind Rises" something film fans should see.

I first discovered the work of Mr. Miyazaki thanks to Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert, whom at one time championed Miyazaki's work. Twice he placed his films on his annual top ten list; "Princess Mononoke" (1999) and "Spirited Away" (2002). It was these films which were my introduction into the world of Hayao Miyazaki and I have never looked back since. Even I have placed one of Mr. Miyazaki's films on my own top ten list, the Oscar nominated "Howl's Moving Castle" (2005), which I regard as his greatest achievement.

"The Wind Rises" is a bit out of the norm of Mr. Miyazaki's work. Normally his films revolve around a young, sometimes precocious, strong willed female character. Aviation is also an important element in his work. He likes to make films with an anti-war message and films which promote a pro-environmental theme. Here in "The Wind Rises", we follow a male character, Jiro Horikoski (voiced in the English dub version by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who is a bit older than most characters in a Miyazaki film. Jiro designs zero fighter planes during WW2. Given the story-line aviation is significant to the plot. The film also points out the destruction these planes caused, pushing an anti-war theme as well.

Jiro, even as a young boy, loved aviation. His hero is an Italian designer, Caproni (Stanley Tucci). Jiro sees true beauty in planes and since he has bad vision, he can never fly them. Through his imagination, Jiro and Caproni meet in his dreams and Caproni offers inspiration to Jiro, encouraging him to follow his dreams.

The main focal point of the story is what lead Jiro to design the zero fighter planes. Jiro is not interested in war. He only wants to make beauty but he knows what these planes will be used for. He knows the destruction they will cause. And as an American audience watches this movie, we know who the Japanese will be using these planes against.

Mr. Miyazaki also throws in a love story into the mix. Jiro falls in love with Nahoko (Emily Blunt), a young woman with tuberculous.

"The Wind Rises" would make a nice double bill with "From Up On Poppy Hill" (2013), which was written by Mr. Miyazaki and directed by his son, Goro. They offer two completely different messages, yet I still see a comparison. "From Up On Poppy Hill" argues we need to preserve the past. Tradition is important, whereas "The Wind Rises" says we need to move forward and not live in the past. Of the two messages I prefer "From Up On Poppy Hill"'s, which I was able to relate to on a deeper level.

Much is made of the economic and social conditions in Japan during this period. Jiro and his friend, Honjo (John Krasinski) are frustrated with the poverty they see in Japan. Why is Japan so far behind with the times? How can Japan grow and move forward and keep up with the rest of the world? How can it become an innovated leader?

These are serious questions. "The Wind Rises" is a serious bio-pic. And that is what keeps me from enjoying the movie more. It is similar to something I said about Miyazaki's "Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind" (1984). It is almost too realistic. I like animated movies to feed on my imagination. To be fanciful. Mind you there are exceptions to the rule - Isao Takahata's "Grave of the Fireflies" (1988) is an example. It is a heartfelt story of two orphans during WW2. Even "From Up On Poppy Hill". The difference is I was emotionally drawn into those stories on a level I wasn't drawn into watching "The Wind Rises".

But, this brings about an interesting topic. Can animation tell serious stories? Absolutely. I just gave two examples. There was also a brilliant Israeli film "Waltz with Bashir" (2009), dealing with the Israeli-Lebanon conflict of the 1980s. Animation has no bounds. It doesn't have to be strictly for children. "The Wind Rises" is not necessarily for children. Animation can have an adult appeal. A lot of it has to do with our culture. In America we tend to think of animation being Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny cartoons. In Japan for example it is different. Mr. Miyazaki's films rank among some of the country's highest grossing films of all time. "Spirited Away" grossed more than "Titanic" (1997)!

Yet, in complete contradiction to my previous paragraph, there was something about "The Wind Rises" which stopped me from enjoying it more. All I could think of is it is almost too real. It is not unlike a conventional live action biographical film. It becomes a little dark when it deals with Nahoko and her sickness, that doesn't bother me, but parents should consider this when taking children.

In addition to its Oscar nomination the film was also nominated for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and won the National Board of Review award for best animated feature film.

I hope this isn't Mr. Miyazaki's final film. I hope he thrills audiences one more time. If not, even though I don't think this is a masterpiece, Mr. Miyazaki has left us with a masterful legacy to marvel at.