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Thursday, March 27, 2014 12:01 am

Rises a fitting swan song for Miyazaki


Reportedly the final film from Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki (he’s announced his retirement many times before), The Wind Rises proves to be a fitting film to go out on. It is the most grounded of the animator’s movies, a project that employs his distinctive visual flair in order to tell the story of Jiro Horikoshi, a nearsighted, frail engineer who was not allowed to fly but who went on to design the fighter planes used by Japan during World War II.

Surprisingly, the movie was greeted with the kind of backlash one would expect in America - if the common filmgoer here knew about Miyazaki and his films that is – as many liberal Japanese criticized the director for praising the inventor of “killing machines,” while others accused him of looking at Horikoshi through rose-colored glasses. Nonetheless, Rises was the most successful Japanese film of 2013 due to Miyazaki’s popularity.

To be sure, the movie is beautiful as are all of the director’s movies and the approach he takes is in keeping with his past work, where a distinction is made between reality and what occurs in his subjects’ imagination. Here, Horikoshi meets his hero Giovanni Battista Caproni, the progressive Italian aeronautical engineer whose work he admires in his dreams. He continues to have reveries during which he converses with him as he rises through the Mitsubishi Corporation where his designs are built and modified for the purpose of national defense.

What’s interesting about these conversations is how they progress, from the mentor encouraging his protégée to develop his ideas, to talks in which Horikoshi attempts to justify how his inventions are being used. More than anything, the film is an interesting study in denial and delusion. The inventor is seen outwardly as bit of a wide-eyed idealist, yet we know that he’s battling great inner turmoil in a disturbingly innocent way.

Not all of the film is internal. Romance springs up between Horikoshi and a young girl named Nahoka whom he meets during the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, one of the film’s most spectacular and horrible sequences. They meet each other again a decade later and embark on a romance that’s doomed from the start. That this section of Horikoshi’s life is fabricated as well, only supports charges that Miyazaki went out of his way to put his hero in a better light.

Though there are many complex issues at play here, what the viewer is left with is a portrait of a man in turmoil, an inventor whose dreams of making beautiful flying machines, that will bring him and others closer to nature, have been perverted into instruments of destruction. All of this is reflected through Miyazaki’s sure eye, his hand-drawn images casting each environment in a way that reflects how his antagonist views them. The difference between scenes that take place in nature – lush forests, sparkling water and clear skies – is in stark contrast to those set in the world of industry where Horikoshi’s dream machines are manufactured. A cruel sense of irony runs beneath Miyazaki’s incredible imagery and this juxtaposition makes the news of his retirement all the more upsetting. Rarely has an animator infused his films with the sort of meaning that he has.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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