Thursday, May 21, 2015

Miyazaki rises for his final bow

An apocryphal story about Wernher von Braun claims that when the first of his V-2s struck London, the pioneering German rocket scientist said to his colleagues, “The rocket worked perfectly, except for landing on the wrong planet.”

Whether true or not, two things are not in doubt. The first is the strength of von Braun’s obsession with building rockets that one day could reach the stars. The second is the price others — mostly civilians — paid for his wartime work. Americans may be forgiving, given that von Braun helped us win the space race. But Londoners who survived the Nazis’ hundreds of V-2s are probably less inclined to forgive and forget.

Von Braun comes to mind when watching “The Wind Rises” the final film — assuming his latest pledge of retirement sticks — of 74-year-old Oscar-winning animator Hayao Miyazaki (“Spirited Away”). 

“The Wind Rises” (Blu-ray and DVD) is a fictionalized biography of aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi (1903-1982), who dreamed of making beautiful aircraft and who, like von Braun, saw his dreams perverted by war. The film follows Horikoshi from his youth, surviving the great earthquake of 1923, through marriage and on through World War II.

Horikoshi’s planes were marvels of design. When introduced, his Mitsubishi A6M Zero was unmatched in the skies above the Pacific. It was just made for the wrong purpose.

The dreamer whose dreams become the stuff of others’ nightmares is just the sort of dramatic tension that moves Miyazaki to do his best work. In his earlier movies, Miyazaki often focused on the tension between civilization and the natural world, between urban and rural. Such themes run beneath the surface of Miyazaki’s most beloved film, “My Neighbor Totoro,” and swell to the fore in his more mature work, such as “Princess Mononoke.”

In “Princess Mononoke,” Miyazaki’s heart clearly is with nature and the magical creatures lurking in its shadows. Yet he is aware enough and honest enough to show the smoke-belching factories of the city helping the poor and the outcast better their lives. Life is trade-offs.

In his more recent works, Miyazaki has turned from questions of ecology to matters of war and peace. A product of Japan’s postwar pacifism, Miyazaki now finds himself in a Japan more willing to use its military than at any time since World War II, and not just for self defense but for multinational operations abroad.

For Miyazaki, who was born in 1941, this must seem the slippery slope leading back to the Imperial Japan that ended in cities filled with death and ruin. One wonders if that’s why he finds it so difficult to stay retired. It’s not just his art calling to him, but fear of what Japan could again become. Miyazaki has spoken out against attempts to remove the anti-war Article 9 of Japan’s constitution.

In Miyazaki’s “Howl’s Moving Castle,” based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, the hero, Howl, is a magician who is, to put it bluntly, a draft dodger, going from place to place in his moving castle to avoid being caught up in other people’s wars.

In “The Wind Rises’ ” Horikoshi, Miyazaki finds a kindred spirit — an artist and a dreamer. Some of the most beautiful scenes in “The Wind Rises” — a film full of gorgeous images —  take place in Horikoshi’s dreams, where he meets his idol, Italian airplane designer Giovanni Caproni, who also saw the planes he designed sent off to war, most never to return.

Disney’s English-language dubbing, as usual, takes advantage of name actors, some of whom seem stiff behind the microphone. But there are a few pleasant surprises, Stanley Tucci’s Caproni among them. But it’s German director Werner Herzog as a German pacifist who steals the show.

Like all of Miyazaki’s works, “The Wind Rises” is a visual symphony, where the silence between the notes is as important as the notes themselves. While not his greatest film, it is a great film and a fitting capstone to a career touched by genius.

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