Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Japanese Film Festival 2014: Kaze Tachinu (The Wind Rises)

What is this, the 11th year in a row that I've been to the Japanese Film Festival in KL? It doesn't feel like much time has elapsed since the last one- it has been a year since the tenth festival, and also a year since my post on it- time is moving frighteningly fast. One year ago I was somewhat disappointed that they did not show Kaze Tachinu (The Wind Rises), but true to the organizers' past form in successfully bringing over major new films, here it is in 2014. Ghibli movies are big events, of course, so I suppose it shouldn't have been a surprise to have it screened here at some point.

Of course, no one could have known a year ago that Kaze Tachinu would be Ghibli's swan song. After years of mostly fantastical and whimsical films, Director Miyazaki's final film appears to be greatly different- a serious semi-fictional and somewhat dramatized biopic of Japanese aeronautical engineer Horikoshi Jiro, lead designer of the Mitsubishi Zero fighter. That being said- I was not expecting the opening to be a dream scene. One half of me was convinced that it was just a silly dream (airplanes just don't work like that!), but the other half, being all too familiar with past Ghibli films, was perhaps somewhat delighted that the movie would not be a dry and bookish retelling of an engineer's life story. Shame on 50% of me- I should have known better.

We start of with a young Jiro, and meet his fictional younger sister first. It was somewhat funny hearing his young sister using keigo when speaking to her big bro- how old was she, six? She's already using uppity words like sashiagemasu. Did kids those days really talk like that? I wouldn't know. Enlighten me. Young Jiro spoke in a somewhat stiff tone, his sentences short and precise- a stereotypical engineer. Ha. The bubbly and talkative boffins out there are preparing their pitchforks for a witch hunt as you read this. Jiro grows up- he goes to Tokyo U, and by chance meets his future wife, the lovely Satomi Nahoko (I'm quite disappointed that there's no Wiki page for her, actually) during the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. After graduating, he scores a job for life in Mitsubishi Internal Combustion, now known as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, the company sends him to Germany (and off-screen, parts of Europe and the US) on a study trip- the lucky fella. I'm not going to spoil what little of the plot there is (there isn't much, really)- just watch the movie for yourself and take in the scenery like any other Ghibli movie.

Speaking of the scenery- given how Miyazaki and co. took some liberties with actual history, I'm not sure if everything really is as it was shown in the film. They did a great job at showing how backwards Showa-era Japan was compared to major Western countries like Germany and the US. The factory where they built their planes looked like a large storehouse in a scrapyard, and they used oxen to pull the finished planes to the runway. Jiro's dream scenes, on the other hand, were almost like a last chance for Ghibli's artists to go bonkers in their usual cheerful and bright style, with chubby and happy faces popping out of holes like rabbits. Count Caproni, Jiro's dream-sensei, even has a lovely harem bevy of presumably Italian beauties accompanying him. They pale in comparison to Satomi Nahoko however- Jiro's love interest in the film.

Nahoko is a gem. I'd take her, if she'd have me, over a Disney princess every single time- though I have to admit that this would apply to many other Ghibli heroines as well, if they majority of them weren't juveniles. Nahoko isn't my favorite Ghibli leading lady- that honor goes to Sophie from Howl's Moving Castle- but she's a lovely character in her own right, despite her not having much dialogue (not that that matters much in a Ghibli film!) or screen time. She does much just by being there- she's smitten with him since their first fateful encounter during the earthquake, and still remembers him years later when they meet again. She pretty much single-handedly heals Jiro when he goes to a mountain resort- presumably to recuperate from overwork. She eventually decides to abandon therapy (a cure for the sickness she had did not exist at the time) to be with Jiro while he finishes his work on the Zero.

Some critic(s) have taken offense with Miyazaki's depiction of Nahoko for being such a selfless soul- for the life of me, I can't find the link to the one article I read, or I'd have more to rant on, but my conclusion would have been the same anyway. When I consume literature I don't think of how a character would have been better developed if written or acted in a different manner- I fully absorb  myself into the story, and take them as they are- actual individuals who make their own choices, and not just puppets with no control over the words they speak or the actions they take (especially when the literature is crafted well). It was her choice to stay with Jiro- she was not compelled by Jiro, by her father, or even Miyazaki (well that's a stretch, but like I said- Miyazaki's not in the movie). I don't know if I'd ever be able to sacrifice everything for one person, but Nahoko made that decision in a heartbeat, and I don't think it's fair for anyone to criticize her for that. Now to permit some selfish feelings to creep in- I do wish that more time was given to show Jiro and Nahoko's relationship.

On to the Zero. Another issue many critics (both armchair and professional) have with the film is how Jiro's opinion on the war is portrayed. Many seemed to feel that Kaze Tachinu just didn't lean far enough into either the anti-war or pro-war camps. Miyazaki- who's pretty much on one step from saint-hood in the animation industry, has been called a traitor by some, amongst other names. Anime Jiro seems to only be concerned with wanting to build a beautiful airplane, it is just unfortunate that the only way he will be able to do so is by designing one which will be destined for the military. This sounds a lot like what some German rocket scientists (Oppenheimer as well, if I'm not mistaken- I might be) might have said (my memory really is faulty here)- "we just wanted to build rockets".

If Jiro did not want to build weapons, what would he have done instead? To train for your entire life to do one thing, only to have to give up on doing it because of the machinations of others? It's a troubling sentiment- you're contributing to an evil cause to accomplish your own neutral goals, but one that I can empathize with- if the world were burning around me I'd probably conclude that I might as well just go along with the flow and do what I want to do. In Jiro's case, even if he didn't build the plane for the army, some other engineer, perhaps in another company, would have won the contract. And what would Jiro have to build then? Paper airplanes?

Once again though- to be fair, there is the counter-argument that if Jiro had given up on building the plane, he could have had more time to spend with Nahoko. Whether Nahoko would have accepted this would just be simple speculation- I do admit that I would love such a plot twist- even Miyazaki can't twist actual history that far, though. One thing is for certain- film Jiro sacrificed film Nahoko to fulfill his dream, but this was a sacrifice that they were aware of from the beginning, and one that they knew they would have to come to, and this was their choice.

Enjoy your retirement, Director- you've built some mighty fine airplanes in your time, and Kaze Tachinu flies as gracefully as the others that came before it.

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