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‘Wind Rises’ has a muddle at its middle

Hayao Miyazaki's film "The Wind Rises" was nominated for an Oscar, but it lost out to the U.S.-made feature "Frozen." That's a measure of how much the Motion Picture Academy prefers child-oriented animated films to Miyazaki's more adult fare. At the same time, Miyazaki's film does have problems, the main one of which I tried to explain in the review I wrote for Spokane Public Radio. A transcription of that review follows: 

In a 1966 essay, critic Howard Richards outlined what he saw as “The Social Responsibility of the Artist.” “Artistic integrity,” Richards wrote, “requires commitment to some standard of excellence other than public applause.” That standard, Richards continued, “may be a message, something the artist feels called to say whether or not the public wants to hear it.”

No doubt some moviegoers, both in Japan and the U.S., aren’t going to want to hear what the great anime filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki tries to say in his latest – and possibly last – film. And that’s because said film, “The Wind Rises,” tells the story of a man whose life’s work was put on best display during the most catastrophic war the world has endured.

Born in 1903, Jiro Horikoshi was an aeronautical engineer who led the teams that developed such Japanese fighter planes as the Mitsubishi Zero, a symbol of Japanese might during World War II and – perhaps most notably to U.S. citizens – part of the air fleet that attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

Miyazaki describes himself as a “bundle of contradictions,” which is how he explains being anti-war yet retaining an affection for Horikoshi’s most famous airplane. “Japan went to war out of foolish arrogance … and ultimately brought destruction upon itself,” Miyazaki told one newspaper. “But … the Zero represented one of the few things that we Japanese could be proud of.”

That symbol of pride is precisely what Miyazaki attempts to salvage – a bit too clumsily – in “The Wind Rises,” which focuses on Horikoshi’s childhood as a near-sighted lover of all things that fly, progresses through his college years and focuses, ultimately, on his career and what it wrought. Typical of all Miyazaki’s films, “The Wind Rises” is told through an alluring array of animated images. And while not aimed at children, as most American animated efforts are, Miyazaki’s characterization of Horikoshi does have a gentle, occasionally comic, tone that tends to soften its bittersweet story line.

The counterpoint, of course, IS that story line, which follows three paths. The first is Miyazaki’s romanticized telling of Horikoshi’s relationship with Naoko, the tubercular young woman he ends up marrying. The second involves Japan itself and keys on two events: the 1923 Kanto earthquake and firestorm that killed an estimated 140,000 people, and the Great Depression, which made life as harsh for the average Japanese as anywhere in the world. Finally, the movie explores Horikoshi’s obsession for airplane design, which would find its ultimate expression with the Zero.

Blending these story elements doesn’t make for a completely smooth fit, though. Even worse, the mix ends up downplaying Horikoshi’s role in Japan’s war effort. Yes, “The Wind Rises” does, at times, resemble the kind of movie about everyday Japanese life that Ozu might have made. And keying on the historical elements – however incomplete – does offer some explanation as to why Japan’s military rose to such prominence. But to emphasize Horikoshi’s interest in airplanes and ignore his responsibility for the use to which they were put is like excusing those who helped create the atomic bomb because, you know, they were interested only in finding a use for uranium.

Miyazaki’s bundled contradictions deliver a message that even Howard Richards might have thought muddled.