With the Oscar season upon us, there are a number of films looking to win the praise of their peers and the Academy by winning one of the many awards.
While the category for best picture might get all of the attention every year, the one that I focus mostly on is Best Animation.
However, with the growing trend in 3D animation it’s becoming less and less likely to see a traditional animated film get’s nominated.
This year there are two; Ernest & Celestine and Miyazaki’s (second) farewell film, The Wind Rises.
The Wind Rises is an anime film directed and written by Hayao Miyazaki and produced by Studio Ghibli.
The film follows Jiro Horkoshi (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the Japanese plane designer, who created the main fighters used during WWII.
The film opens with the engineer as a child in a Pre WWI Japan, and then quickly moves several years ahead to his eventual creations.
During his college years Horikoshi meets Naoko Satomi (Emily Blunt), the daughter of a hotel owner. Before the two can get to know each other an earthquake hits the countryside.
Shortly after Horikoshi helps Naoko and her friend back to her house and the two are separated due to the earthquakes destruction of Tokyo.
A few years later Jiro and his school friend Honjo (John Krasinshi) start working for an aviation company owned by businessman Satomi (William H Macy) and run by chief engineer Kurokawa (Martin Short) to create a new fighter for the Japanese army.
After a series of failures Jiro goes on vacation only to reunite with Naoko at her families business. A romance grows as Horikoshi starts designing his planes from scratch.
All throughout the film, Jiro is placed into a number of dream sequences featuring his idol, the Italian aeronautical engineer Giovanni Battista Caporni (Stanley Tucci). These scenes seem to tie the film together, but I’ll get into that later.
On the technical side, the Wind Rises is amazing to say the least.
While I’ve yet to see a Studio Ghibli that doesn’t impress animation wise, this time the film features beautiful flight animation through the melding of 3D and 2D animation. While I normally hate these two styles combining, the production team takes the time to make the scenes look great.
The character designs are solid as each of the characters end up having the trappings of the traditional Ghibili characters. The most different is the films main character whose thick glasses end up making stand out from the past Miyazaki creations.
Backing the animation is an interesting soundtrack.
The film’s score, produced by Joe Hisaishi is standard fair for Ghibli films and features little in the way of traditional Japanese instrumentation. One of the more predominate instruments use for the score is the Accordion, which is used mostly during scenes featuring the young Japanese designer and his Italian idol Caproni.
The films main theme is “Hikoki-gumo” a song recorded by Japanese Pop singer Yumi Matsutoya in the 70s. The track ends up being a perfect half-optimistic/bitter sweet song to end off the film and was used a lot in the films promotion. It’s also catchy as all hell.
However, what’s most interesting is the films use of sound effects.
The majority of the sounds in the film are based around the human voice. The crashing of a fighter plane or the after shocks of the Kanto Earthquake, are all represented with voiceovers most of which without the use of pitch shifting.
Despite this being cool, it ends up seem a bit out of place outside of the films dream sequences.
On the topic of voices, it wouldn’t be an English Ghibli release without some big name talent filling out the characters, and this one is no different.
As mentioned before the film features the voices of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, John Krasinshi and Martian Short, but the rest of the cast features other well known talent such as Elijah Wood, Mandy Patinkin and Werner Herzog.
While they all give good performances the one voice that ends up sticking out at times is that of Gordon-Levitt.
While he’s good most of the time, during certain scenes he seems stiff like he’s having to juggle two roles on top of the voice over session, and thus not giving the performance the focus it needed.
While the animation and soundtrack work well in the film there are still a few problems that hurt end up hurting it, the biggest being its plot.
Unlike the majority of the Ghibli library of films, the Wind Rises doesn’t feature a strong story. In fact the film doesn’t feature any type of conflict at all.
While this is more or less a biography of one man’s life (albeit with a lot of fiction added), there still was a need for some type of conflict to push the plot along.
Instead what we get is a film that ends up moving around from one year to another with no real explanation aside from the insertion of a dream sequence. The closest example I can think of in traditional films would be the use of announcements in the M*A*S*H film and TV series. However, that franchise only takes place over a few years, while this one is the better part of a lifetime.
The film jumps around so much its can confuse the audience as to what’s happing in the film. Additionally, the dream sequences end up compounding the plot issues.
The scenes seem to come out of nowhere and don’t end up doing a lot other than break up the film and allow the charismatic Caproni to appear for a few minutes.
With the lack of explanation of times passing there are a number of other issues that arrive such as the romance between Jiro and Naoko.
When the two see each other again their romance is abridged to say the least.
They go from flirting to getting engaged in under 10 minutes of the film. From there the two don’t spend a lot of time together on screen due to Jiro’s job and an illness.
The film wants the audience to care for the two, however, we don’t really get a feel for Naoka is or what the relationship is like. This makes the romance fall flat on it’s face.
With all of these issues mixed together the films running time of two hours and six minutes seems to drag during the middle. While I’d suggest some editing, the story is so abridged already that cuts could only hurt it more.
Finally, I wanted to talk a little about the controversy based around the film, and I’m not talking about Miyazaka’s “retirement.”
A number of groups have criticized the film for plenty of things. The three biggest being, the film being based upon the life of a man who built killing machines, the lack of information about the Korean and Chinese labours that were forced to build them and the predominate amount of smoking.
While the first two are extremely complex issues that deal with Politics and slavery, the smoking thing makes me laugh a bit. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t smoke nor am I planning on doing so, but this is film based in a period of time when smoking was popular.
That being said, between Jiro and Honjo I think they end up smoking more cigarettes than the whole cast of Mad Men and it almost seem out of place at times or as if it was done for dramatic effect.
While we can all debate the politics of the time or the treatment prisoners of war, being angry about characters smoking in a film based in the early 20th century is moot to say the least.
Despite all of this, there’s still plenty to like about this film.
It’s light, charming and some might even find it quite funny. While the film is far from the Miyazaki’s greatest film, it’s still solid.
With animation it’s easy to over deliver on the visuals and come up short on story, and this film is no different. With the bar set so high with the rest of the Ghibli library, average films like this end up standing out even more.
If it’s playing near you, I’d say there’s worse ways of spending an afternoon than watching this.
The Wind Rises was produced by Studio Ghibli and was based upon a manga of the same name created by Hayao Miyazaki and The Wind Has Risen by Tatsuo Hori.
The film is licensed by Toho (Japan), Touchstone Pictures (North America), StudioCanal (UK) and Central Partnership (Russia).