05 March, 2014

I'm Sure There's a French Phrase for The Wind Rises

The Wind Rises feels like a man's final movie. It's no secret that Hayao Miyazaki is a fan of aeronautics. You can see it in everything from Porco Rosso to Laputa to Kiki's Delivery Service. It is no wonder that The Wind Rises is the work he would choose to round out his storied career. It is a movie with a singular vision, one driven by a man with enough influence, talent, and respect to make exactly the kind of movie that he wanted to make. It feels like a movie a man would make knowing he would never have another chance.

It is also a movie so long and so dull that it can only be explained by passion of a single man at its helm. No group of people would willingly make a movie this listless without a genius at the helm. Even an accident would have made something more lively than what I saw.Knowing that makes this all the more the bummer.

Either in order to make sense of The Wind Rises or to keep my brain from shutting down, I started thinking about Dr. Zhivago. They're both historical films, they both share a grand scale, and they're both bound by doomed romances. Most importantly they are driven to complete a singular life's work. David Lean's film is also a movie where a great many things don't happen for a long period of time. If I remember correctly the climax of the film is Omar Sharif writing a poem in a cold house. It's not exactly helicopter explosion city.

Yet, Dr. Zhivago has something that The Wind Rises does not. David Lean's turn at a mystical artist has emotional stakes. It has conflict that is both personal and historical. It's a movie that is weighed down with a sense of doom from the very first scene (even if we don't know a thing about the Russian Revolution). Even if we do not care about the plight of a mystical poet and his failed romances, we do care about his family and the women he loved because there are horrible consequences lurking in the back of every twist of the plot.

The Wind Rises has none of this. It's a drama with no real stakes, which is to say that it is a drama with no drama.

Our hero sleepwalks from scene to scene until he overcomes each and every obstacle merely by sticking around long enough. By the end I am not left with a sense of Jiro's life or accomplishments. He moves from one scene to another with little connection between the two. Plot threads are forgotten. Others are half-heartily followed through on. There is no resonance, instead I am overwhelmed by the thought that like Jiro, I should have fallen asleep.

It's strange because the techniques at play in this film are not any different than Hayao Miyazaki's other films. With the exception of maybe Nausicaa or Princess Mononoke, most of his films do not have a sense of being driven forward. His movies tend to unfold calmy and quietly. Spirited Away in many ways does have a driving conceit at the center (the fear of losing ones parents and one's memory), but it also has one of his most incidental plots. It also might be his very best.

The idea of a film without a story, a film that is told in a seemingly lilting, meandering format is on perfect display in his first great film, My Neighbor Totoro. Roger Ebert's describes the movie as"is based on experience, situation and exploration—not on conflict and threat."

My Neighbor Totoro works because we are invested in the world. We're invested in the characters. We want to see where they're going, even if that means watching them do something as simple as plant a garden. Or wait in the rain. We are care about the movie because it's fun to look at, but we also care about the characters. It's a fully realized film that is bursting at the seams with life in its 86 minute run.

The Wind Rises rare bit of life occur in Jiro's lengthy dream sequences. It's telling that the most affecting moments of the film are those that are completely untethered from reality.

These dreams are moments of pure beauty. They remind you of the great talent that Hayao Miyazaki possesses. They show that his vision and passion can work together to deliver a kind of visual showcase that nobody else in film can. It was enough for me to think to myself "I think I love this movie" during the first twenty minutes of the film.

It was not to last. It does not last because the rest of the film gets in the way. Jiro's non-trials with plane building. His rather uneventful world tour. His romance that, after courting, has all of the passion of a bowl of fruit. We have moments of wonder sandwiched in between these long periods of tedium. And then we finally return to Jiro's dreams. Finally.

This isn't a spoiler, but the final scene, like the first scene, takes place in a dream. It is a scene where Jiro reconciles his dream with his reality. It is where the two concepts meet and he, we must assume, comes to another epiphany. This time, though, instead of thinking of how much I love Miyazaki and how much I want to go on a journey with him about planes and about the kind of men who want to fly, I am annoyed at how long it took us to get here. It is not a scene that is connected to anything that matters. It wasn't until later, that I thought about this movie and why I have taken against it that I realized that the dreams have to matter as much as the dreamers.

Slapping around what might be the last work of a great director doesn't lift my spirits. Forgive me if I'm repeating myself, but the older I get, the less fun slagging off things has become. I want things to be good. I want good directors to make good movies. Rambling on about how the emperor has no clothes is not the fun hobby that it once was. It's all of the fun of jousting windmills but without any of the idiotic nobility.
Looking back on the legacy of Hayao Miyazaki, I think he has the right to make a bad movie. If anyone is allowed to say whatever they want, good or bad, it is Hayao Miyazaki. He's earned it.

The Wind Rises seems like a movie shaped by passion-- Passion for the material, passion for the time, and a passion to say something that maybe his lighter films could not say. It is a shame that this passion doesn't translate into a better film.

The Wind Rises stands as a testament to the magnitude of Miyazaki's legacy, yet ultimately exists apart from it. Its rare moments of wonder only remind us just how wonderful of a career that he has had, of what a wonderful man he must be.


It is at this point that I open myself up to severe criticism. You can do so by visiting Old College Comics and buying one of the anthologies I worked on. For better or for worse, Hayao Miyazaki's fantasy works were huge inspirations for me and my silly viking comic.

I also do a podcast called White Guys, Square Glasses (for some reason) with my friend Cruz Flores. We recently shifted the format to be about one movie a week. This last week we discussed Goon. Next week will be. . . The Toxic Avenger. Ugh. I'm dreading that one. The Wind Rises will not be one of them, but I'd like to think that there will be a future podcast about one of his other films. You know, One of his good films.

Here's my twitter, too.