Hayo Miyazaki is a rare case of a director who is a household name, which is rare among animated directors and even rarer among anime directors (in America, I stress). This is because well, his movies are generally really freaking good. Princess Mononoke rather resolutely sits as my favorite animated film of all time, as it has since I saw it, Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro are staples of the lists of movies I recommend to parents who ask me for movies. So when he shows up for the first time since 2009 to bring us what he says will be his last movie, not really liking it disturbs me.
The plot is a heavily (HEAVILY) fictionalized biopic of famous Japanese aeronautics engineer Jiro Horikoshi (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). The plot follows him from a young man, dreaming of building airplanes (including sharing what are apparently psychic dreams with fellow engineer Giovanni Caproni, one of several plot points that raises a few eyebrows but never feels like explaining itself). It follows him, from his decision to become an engineer to his time in college, all the way to his adulthood, working on building new fighters for Japan in the lead in to World War II.
And oddly enough this is the biggest problem with the movie: I don’t have a firm grasp on what the stakes are. Compared to other Miyazaki films, we know exactly what the stakes are early on. In Princess Mononoke Ashitaka is cursed and wants to be uncursed, in Spirited Away Chihiro wants to rescue her parents, you get the idea. Even when Japan is in the midst of a huge depression or when Jiro’s designs keep failing, there’s no threat of him losing his job or his company going out of business, so there’s no tension. Potentially interesting subplots, like Jiro being sought by Japan’s secret police or Japan’s often awkward relationship with their German allies are dropped before they can develop.
This isn’t helped by a weirdly awkward structure and a strange way of handling the characters. The romantic interest, who’s subplot makes up a huge amount of the third act, is introduced in the first 15 minutes and doesn’t show up again for another hour, so her character is underdeveloped and the romance feels forced (it doesn’t help that she is ENTIRELY defined by her relationship with Jiro). An anti-Nazi German (played by Werner freaking Herzog) shows up and seems to be leading into something really interesting, but it’s immediately dropped and he hangs around as an odd form of comic relief. Jiro’s most interesting relationship is with his best friend Honjo (John Krasinski), who’s overly practical and cynical outlook contrasts nicely with Jiro’s optimism and dream nature, but he exits the movie at the midpoint and only has the most perfunctory of appearances later.
That might be the biggest issue with the movie. Jiro (the character, not the real person) isn’t an especially interesting character. I get that the idea was to frame him as a starry-eyed dreamer, interested in the artistry of building airplanes, to help diffuse some of the darker things his inventions were used for (more on that in a moment) but he winds up just sort of…well boringly perfect. He never has an artistic breakdown or anything resembling a crisis of faith and therefore doesn’t have much of an arc.
All of this seems to have been paved over to avoid referencing, in any direct way, Japan’s role in World War II or the Second Sino-Japanese War, which is where this review has to get a bit…difficult. Put as quickly as I can, Japan did some truly horrible stuff during their war with China, such as the Rape of Nanking or the experiments performed by Unit 731, and due to…shall we say Japan’s awkward relationship with it’s history, most media tries to skirt making direct references to any of it (never mind the nationalist factions that want to pretend none of it ever even happened).
I’m not overly qualified to talk about this, since I’m not an expert on Japanese or Chinese history, but Inoo Kang (a critic for, amongst other things, the Village Voice) read a statement about it at the Boston Society of Film Critics Awards Voting, and had an extremely interesting conversation with Bob Chipman of the Escapist on the subject, so I’ll simply link you to those.
But refusing to acknowledge the actions of the Japanese military during the period isn’t just depressing, I think it’s the overall detriment of the film. Juxtaposing Jiro’s desire to treat his planes as works of art with the very real horror of their intended use could be extremely powerful. And since the film frames him as a pacifist, learning of some of the atrocities could give him the crisis of faith the second act so desperately needs. Glossing over it misses the opportunity for some real pathos, and it’s disappointing that the film instead decides to ignore it.
This is the sort of negative review I hate to give, because there is good in the movie. It is of course beautifully animated, even by the high standards of Studio Ghibli movies. The voice cast is incredible, and Miyazaki’s obvious enthusiasm for the material is apparent (The way Jiro occasionally talks about flying reminds me very much of similar dialogue from Nausicaa). But the execution is flawed enough that I can’t overlook it. I almost wish this wasn’t Miyazaki’s last film; A filmmaker who has given us such incredible works of art deserves a true swan song, but The Wind Rises isn’t it.
Elessar is a 24 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he feels bad harping on an Oscar nominated movie the same day as the Oscars.
– beautiful animation
– fantastic score and voice acting
– Werner Herzog is in it
– lack of tension
– uninteresting lead character
– awkwardly structured