Monthly Archives: March 2014

114: Wind

Go read! Go read!

This Saturday past, I had dinner with Queenie at a nice diner on west side. We caught the 7 PM showing of The Wind Rises after managing to down the whole strawberry milkshake.

I’d like to intercede with a plug for the California Theatre: the premises are decently clean, the staff seem nice enough, the seats were all right, and the decor was really something. I would go again.

And now, nostalgia goggles on full: Miyazaki crafted my childhood. It is fitting (though not necessarily objective) that I approach his last film with a powerful naivete. The obvious conclusion I draw, some two hours later, is that The Wind Rises is a great film all around. I can see why it lost the Academy Award to Frozen, but that doesn’t stop me from whining like a child and pretending to hold better judgement than the Academy itself. In my quest for ultimate pretentiousness, I will reflect verbosely on whatever facets of the film I can pull out of my arse and attempt to make a case for the film’s greatness. This review will attempt to recall what I remember of Wind from just one viewing.

Spoiler Warning: Halt here. There be foul spoilers ahead, those of ye who haven’t yet seen the film. Turn away now and go see the film like a normal person.

The Visual Component

Gone are the almost jarring contrasts and the simpler palettes of early Ghibli / early Miyazaki (compare Laputa and Poppy, if you will). The closest temporal relative to Wind is Ponyo, which, in its child-oriented storytelling, sought a more distinctive color set to illuminate its world. Not only are Wind and Ponyo temporally the closest, but the lavishly detailed illustrations of Wind distinguish it easily as a post-Ponyo work. It makes a flat airfield look gorgeous. This is not criticism levied at early Ghibli: it is merely a contention that its animators have gotten very, very good at the details.

Studio Ghibli’s improvement is certainly not restricted to the soothing, pastoral scenes. The hellish scenes of war from Howl were some of my favorite for unflinchingly depicting the horrors of war without jumping down the gore-hole. The early scenes from Wind depicting the Great Kanto Earthquake were not shocking, but they did their job. They provide an abrupt transition from a passive scene aboard a train to a chaotic, urban-centered crisis. An exercise in the great splitting of the land seems to have sprouted off of the bombing sequences from Howl. I was very taken with the way the land buckled and flexed; the depiction delivered power plausibly – there may have been some very slight exaggeration, but I wouldn’t know; the job was done, at any rate.

Other fantasy sequences, especially Jiro’s dreams, are equally well thought-out and equally well-drawn; the seamless segue from Jiro’s fantasy (the plane bared naked in his mind’s eye, the structure exploded for the audience to understand, his papers flying everywhere) back to reality, where his coworker invites him to lunch, is marvelously depicted. Jiro’s more specific aeronautical dreams are similarly elegant – there’s something very visually appealing about the planes he conjures up in thought. Even the simple “feathered” aircraft of his childhood (in the opening sequence) has a delightful draw to it that makes children think, “I’d love to pilot that.”

The ever-present image of freedom attained by soaring through the air is both the most pervasive and the most powerful. Seeing Jiro’s creations take flight is uniquely cathartic, no less so than the comparable scenario where the main character aspires to be a pilot rather than a designer. Take these against the fleet of fantastical airships featured in Castle in the Sky: the imagery presented by Wind trades off daring for realism. As Miyazaki’s supposed final hurrah, I’m convinced that it works very well.

The Soundtrack sans Music

I will telescope voice acting and sound design into this section.

I heard good things about the English dub for Wind (and with a sister who appreciates Joseph Gordon-Levitt, I’ll have to see it some time), but I went with the subtitled version out of personal preference.

Ghibli has an illustrious track record with strong female characters, but I cannot immediately file Nahoko Satomi into that category without some more thought. I was not particularly taken with her voicing because her character was not given an all-important part. It worked; it was effective – she was more than a pretty-faced Yamato Nadeshiko (though if you strip away bits of her, you are left with a simplistic Nadeshiko), but more than being demure and emotional and loving I cannot really say that her voice actress was perfect for the part.

Kayo was surprisingly easy to get a feel for: the affectionate, attached little sister with an eye for bigger things than being the imouto. Her perky (but refined) character really shone through. Good on her.

Hats off to Caproni, the bombastic, ever-outgoing host who endorses Jiro. For someone entering retirement, he seems awfully spry (though that is in part a by-product of Jiro’s dreams). Like Kayo, his voice acting makes him rather easy to focus on whenever he appears. I put Castorp into the same category, with his lilting, halfway accented Japanese. (His big, slightly mad-looking eyes contribute to his character, too, but the way he sounds is definitely not an afterthought.) His position as the romantic adviser is really well-accentuated by the way he delivers, like

Germany will explode. Japan will explode, too.

He’s just being creepy, but that’s entirely his point. I shivered a little when I looked him in the face as he spoke that line.

As for Honjou and Kurokawa (Jiro’s co-worker and boss, respectively), I was not so much taken with their voice acting as I was by their visual characterization; they were good, and they fit, but like Nahoko, I am unable to delve much deeper into their characters without straying beyond the auditory realm. I expect this opinion will change after a few more re-watches, but that will wait.

Lastly, we must give an emphatic nod at Jiro Horikoshi. I was initially put off by the voicing he did for the trailer, but as the movie went on I could only marvel at the wonderful choice that Ghibli made when casting this voice actor. There’s a gentleness built into Jiro’s voice that fences him off from emotional outbursts (so far as I recall, he did not once raise his voice in the film) and firmly places him as a level-headed and well-grounded character. His speaking is concise, almost clipped; but he says what he wants and says it sincerely, reflecting ingeniously on his characterization as the introverted engineer.

The sound design of Wind is nothing groundbreaking, but it still deserves praise. We return to the scenes of the Great Kanto Earthquake early in the film. The sighing hiss of the earth as its plates translate into a great upheaval, followed by the terrifying noise of the land heaving up and down in a huge transverse wave, and the sound of the locomotive surfing down the wave with an almighty steely screech as the engineer struggles to brake his train. Pandemonium in a bottle without cheap tricks.

The insidious sighing hiss makes more appearances that I cannot remember, but it is a stark reminder that silence is not always safety. Yet on the whole, the sound design does not strive to stoke tension to the max by doing the descrescendo – sforzando – piannisimo trick. Studio Ghibli knows better than that. The builds are subtle and the deflations are executed at just the right speed.

Clearly, much attention was lavished on the varied noises of the many forms of transport. The sputtering of the planes’ engines turning over, the modestly true-to-life sounds of a steam locomotive, the creaks and groans of an Asian bus … all these luxuriously give a mechanical spirit to these transporters, no longer just simply gears and cogs.

The Music

Joe Hisaishi has been a longtime collaborator with Hayao Miyazaki. Contrary to popular belief, he has a bountiful career outside of his work with Studio Ghibli; it so happens that Studio Ghibli works are critically popular enough to catapult him to the highest visibility whenever he scores one of their films. He has produced outstanding (I snarked Hans Zimmer the other day; make what you will of my use of the adjective “outstanding”) scores on many occasions, even if he has misfired more than once (in my book).

It’s much too early for me to give even the shallowest judgment of the score. I want to really go back and listen to it a few more times to really appreciate it. I will not, however, shoot it down immediately like I did with Man of Steel. I think there is some promise in there. Perhaps I will grow into it, much like I did with The Cat Returns (which is now my top-played film score on my charts). I was impressed that Hisaishi brought back a bit of the minimalist touch in one of Jiro’s fantasy sequences (he did the same to great effect in the score to Spirited Away); not all of the film calls for the usual sweeping, romantic theatrics in which he excels.

Calling upon a balalaika to open the film superficially evokes the sweeping epicness of Doctor Zhivago. The compact, folksy sound of the balalaika, faced with the sheer size of Jiro’s tale, is not inappropriate. It seems that Hisaishi took some pains to avoid kicking off with cliche, which I appreciate very much, given some of his other symphonic works.

I greatly look forward to breaking down the score some more. I’ll call it a day with that.

Conclusion

I earlier equated flying with liberation (one of Miyazaki’s better-treaded themes, I believe); what, then, of the bitter end to Wind? The short answer is that we never should have expected a happy ending in the first place. Jiro’s wife has surrendered to her ailments and passed on, and every single one of his beautiful airplanes have been destroyed as casualties of war.

This ending was not sad for the sake of tear-jerking: it summarizes the movie and wraps everything up in this final sequence. It is fitting that such material be reserved for Miyazaki’s directorial farewell to audiences around the world. We are posed the question, “Was it all worth it?” to which the supplied answer is “Yes, a thousand times yes.”

In that last sequence, the great parallelism that we have unconsciously followed through the movie is at last revealed close-up. Jiro’s wife is obvious; the line is drawn from her to Jiro’s labors of love: the planes he engineers. Call upon the age-old cliche that the journey matters more than the destination. Tile that across to derive “better to have loved and lost than never loved at all.” Jiro was happy building his flying machines; they were his marvelous creatures of beauty. Jiro was also happy to be in love with Nahoko; she was the brightest light of his life.

Perhaps it was wrong to make planes that were certainly bound for war, much as it was probably wrong to withdraw Nahoko from the sanatorium so that she might be closer to Jiro. These consequences are not immaterial, but they are distractions. All machines eventually end; all humans eventually pass on. Better to (a little selfishly) realize your dreams and desires at the cost of accelerating the inevitable than to wait things out, pretending that your hands are washed of those matters.

Hats off to (Ghibli’s conception of) Mr. Jiro Horikoshi. Hats off.

Raise your glasses to Hayao Miyazaki.

J39M

113: Oxflies

Noun: oxflies – 1. plural form of oxfly.

We lived in abject terror of that orb. Our cities were beautiful, but we were scared. Every so often our astronomers would make a little note of the orb being closer than usual, and the astrologists would have a ball writing up all manner of sordid and stupid horoscopes. It really didn’t swing by all that often, but it was often enough to make a lot of people superstitious.

The orb had nothing to do with us, really – but every so often, our receivers would pick up transmissions of a horrific nature whose origin lay grounded in that terrible ball in the sky. When I was young, my parents would casually turn off the television whenever one of those came on.

As I grew older, I found Mom more frequently wringing her hands desperately: “I don’t like the huge cloaks we hide behind! And what about the machines they have sent straight to us? Whole cities decimated and hidden away just to play keep-away with these monsters!”

Dad was an astronomer – one of the best – and he was helpless before this. All he could do was give Mom a firm hug, holding her until she calmed down. (I did my best, too, but I was a kid. I patted Mom’s knee and looked up at her with big, calm, and loony eyes.)

The one time we had to move was when a machine came for our town. We had some days’ clearance to pack all our things and get out: the demolition crew waited for no-one. The evacuation was orderly, but the fear left a musk in the air. Who knew when the orb would send us great engines of destruction? Was is this time? Was it the next? When? It wasn’t a question if; it was solely when.

I was much more optimistic. I was a dumb kid. I wanted to stay behind for the big thing; I wanted to see the machine streak across the sky and strike the planet. I wanted to meet whatever crawled out of that dreadful steel shell. But my parents dragged me along; there was no option to stay behind. I watched as our city telescoped neatly into the ground and disappeared like it never had been.

I grew up. I became a responsible member of society who paid attention to the occasional evacuation drill and learned not to venture outside the city limits (for there we were not visibly shielded from the orb). In a technological explosion I saw our society revolutionize almost overnight. I had no patience for contrived superstition; the orb was shortly shunted to a dusty corner in my mind. It only ever resurfaced when the door-to-door solicitors (identifying themselves as adherents to the Church of the Marble) came around begging me to understand our folly. (These people I gently and wordlessly shut the door against.)

I lived long enough to see our government deform into oligarchy. I saw petty political battles waged over dunghills. I saw tanks deployed against my friends: they were first made inaudible over the roar of machinery, and then silenced under the unyielding treads. I saw heroes stand up to fight, only to be gunned down by unending tides of soldiers. As a public servant, none of this had anything to do with me.

I was in the symphony hall when the secret police stung. They downed one unfortunate bassist and the orchestra scattered in an almighty cacophony. The audience full of grey hair reacted lethargically; I was already halfway down the street when the screaming began. The following morning, the headlines blared some irrelevant story about the president’s love of vegetarian cuisine.

My friend in the office grabbed his coat at a run, forsaking his hat entirely. “You should go, too, before they come for you!” he said as a parting shot. I never saw him again.

I didn’t go to work after that. I weighed my options briefly and decided at last that I had to go. I packed my bags over the noise of a lower-order orb alert, and pulled my hat down as far as I could. I would find a place to go eventually. I had to leave the city, for starters.

I sneaked out right before the border check at curfew. Off into the nondescript wastes I went. At the first hill I dared straighten up, I turned around for a last farewell to the city to which I could never return. Behind the smokescreen orb-shield, I made out the vaguest of flashes over some new uprising.

There was a terrible storm that night. I tied my handkerchief around my face, but still the sand and grit went all over my face, coalescing uncomfortably around my collar. I couldn’t breathe properly through my nose, but opening my mouth was out of the question.

Conditions didn’t improve in the slightest for days. I grew used to sitting, walking, and sleeping with my clothes all stuffed with sand.

At last, half-blind, despondent, and half-dead from grief and fatigue, I saw the storm abate. I crawled a bit. Sand trickled out of my sleeves and spilled out from my collar.

I lay in a stupor.

I ignored the buzzing in my ears. There were no flies out here.

But when the buzzing resolved itself into a click, I raised my head slowly.

The body of the beast bore an inscription in a foreign alphabet. A sightless eye mounted on a rod stared down at me. Six wheeled appendages nestled comfortably in the dirt.

This was the end. Damned if we did, and damned if we didn’t: if not ourselves, then the orb. I began to cry as my finger traced out the letters naming this orbian thing before me: Opportunity.