‘The Wind Rises:’ Film Review

I think it may have been after I saw WALL*E, but I had this great idea that Pixar was doing so much great animated work that they should just option a great script and animate it.  At the time, I was thinking that it kind of marginalizes the art form for it to just be associated with kids or family movies.  Why do animated films have to deal with dancing flatware or singing animals?  WALL*E could just as easily have been a live-action film.  Both he and Eve could have been animatronic.  WALL*E himself bears a pretty striking resemblance to live action Number 5 from the '80s robot with self-awareness movie Short Circuit.  (If you’ve never seen Short Circuit, Number 5 is like a friendlier version of SkyNet.)   There are plenty of morbidly obese people running around America (I say “running” figuratively, by the way.) to populate the space ship.  Jeff Garlin could just as easily been a live-action actor in it.  Hell, the President actually is live action in it.

Why not acquire a great shooting script and make a great animated film from it?

After having seen Hayao Miayazaki’s new film The Wind Rises, I am re-thinking how I feel about that.  The Wind Rises has no talking cars or warbling snowmen.  It features only human characters.  I realize that Miyazaki is a legendary animator, but with all the fantastical animated elements removed, The Wind Rises fell very flat for me dramatically.

Maybe it had something to do with the animation style.  I know many of our readers may be horrified by this, but I’ve never really been all that enamored with Japanese animation.  In fact, my favorite example of the style is the Avatar: The Last Airbender television show, and that was an American production done in the Japanese style.  (It’s still the very best children’s program I’ve ever seen that wasn’t Sesame Street.)  The animation doesn’t even seem to be drawn at 24 frames per second, which caused the characters to movie in some weird, jerky motions.  The mouths aren’t properly articulated to the voice work, and the attempts at drawing human emotions come off as, well, cartoonish.  I keep hearing how visually stunning Miayazaki’s work is, and some parts of The Wind Rises were, indeed, lovely to look at.  But, you know what was really visually stunning?  Elsa creating her Dr. Manhattan-like ice castle on the side of a mountain in Frozen.

In fact, I will probably horrify even more people with this, but I think CG animation has reached a point where its hand-drawn counterpart can no longer compete.  CG characters have skeletons and musculatures.  There is a level of expressiveness and subtlety to their emotions and body language that is unmatched.  Sully from the Pixar Monsters films has individualized fur.  Each strand of hair on him moves independently.   I am genuinely excited to see where this technology heads as it increases exponentially.  What will animated films be able to do a decade from now?  It’s genuinely exciting.

The Wind Rises tells the story of Jiro, a young man fascinated with airplanes from the time he was a small boy.  His poor eyesight prevents him from being a pilot, so he becomes a genius, Steve Jobs-like aviation engineer, working diligently to bring Japan’s primitive wooden airplanes into the modern steel age. (The film is set in the first half of the 20th century.)  As we are asked to care about Jiro’s professional success of building the world’s greatest aircraft, the film glosses over the fact that his planes are going to be used to kill thousands of people during World War II.

Along the way, he meets and falls in love with Nahoko while staying at a country inn.  This is where the film really started to come off the rails for me.  For starters, the romance sub-plot is deadly dull.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt (whom I really like in almost everything he does) provides a really flat vocal performance as Jiro, and I was never convinced of the romance.  Later, it’s revealed that Nahoko has a terminal disease and things get steadily worse.  They marry and Jiro goes off to work all day, leaving his dying wife at home alone.  Jiro is presented as this wonderful guy as he builds weapons of mass destruction and leaves his dying wife to stay in bed alone all day.  It became increasingly difficult to be emotionally engaged as the uncharismatic guy willingly participates, at least tangentially, in mass warfare under the guise of building the world’s best airplane and neglecting his dying wife.

He’s kind of a creep.

For the sake of full disclosure, I feel like I should mention this is the first Mayazaki film I’ve seen.  I’ve never seen Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle.  I have heard nothing but great things about those films.  Maybe my lack of experience with Japane responded to this.  Still, I am a big believer that good storytelling simply works and is universal.  If a story is well told, you don’t need to be well versed in the subject matter.  You don’t have to be a butler to enjoy Downton Abbey.

The Wind Rises is a pretty film to look at despite leaving me cold dramatically, and it made me want to look into Mayazaki’s other work.  So, that’s something.

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