Words Unspoken: Studio Ghibli and Visual Storytelling Part 1

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Hey all! Here is part one of my online, written out version of my Anime Boston Panel. Two more parts are forthcoming. There will be extra content in these posts that wasn’t in my panel because I’ve had three weeks to think about them. Consider these a director’s cut.

Part 1: Light and Whisper of the Heart

Describing the basics of the visual language of movies can take a long time and be very boring and who wants that, so here’s a quote from Martin Scorsese talking about light:

“Light is at the core of who we are and how we understand ourselves.”

-Martin Scorsese

All right, so why did I throw that little nugget in there?

Knowing the context of that quote helps. Last year, Martin Scorsese gave a speech at the Kennedy Center about the language of cinema. The alphabet of that language, Scorsese argues, consists of lighting and movement. Now, I have a lot to say about the movement in Whisper of the Heart, but for this discussion I’ll focus on light.

Scorsese went on to talk about how crucial light is to creation stories. Consider the first three lines of the Bible:

1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

3And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

From a storytelling perspective, light is hope against despair. It is possibility in the face of confusion. It is that inkling of inspiration flying free from the tendrils of doubt.

You also need light to see a damn thing. You may as well use it creatively.

Now, let’s watch the first few minutes of this movie. Watch the whole thing you really feel like it (and you should as it is an amazing movie) but for the purposes of this post I’m going to stop right when Shizuku exits the grocery store.

I love this opening. It’s a warm blanket and cup of cocoa of an opening.

What makes it so cozy, though? And more importantly, how does this opening begin telling this movie’s story? The answers actually go hand in hand.

Remember what I was saying about light before? Yoshifumi Kondo’s use of light in this sequence is telling right from the outset.

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It’s easy to sit here and tell you that these shots are warm and comforting and just hope you believe me. But it’s important beforehand to consider how cities can take on characteristics of their own in a film.

For example, consider this first shot of the skyline in Dark City, the 1998 sci-fi film by Alexis Troyas (and my personal favorite sci-fi movie).

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You can barely see a damn thing haha it’s called Dark City I get it now!

The skyline in Dark City is imposing and obscure and impossible to see because that’s the role it plays in this movie. This is a city that changes itself every night, a city that is unpredictable and even deadly. You can’t rest on your feet in this city. It’s scary, mysterious, and the opening shots tell us that right away.

Let’s look then at another famous skyline:

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For the purposes of The Wizard of Oz, the Emerald City skyline needs to serve the opposite function as the Dark City skyline. It is bright and towering and a beacon of hope for our already optimistic crew. It shimmers in the distance, resembling not so much a city as a mythical rock formation, bursting with magic and possibility. It’s literally at the end of their damn trail this movie isn’t trying to be subtle here.

Skylines set the tone for their movies at both ends of the pole here. So where does Whisper of the Heart fall? Somewhere much closer to Wizard of Oz, I think. Let’s look again at that image of East Tokyo.

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At first glance, there’s not much more here than an establishing shot. But there’s a watercolor quality to this image, and coupled with the music it’s a very inviting cityscape. This is not ominous. It’s more akin to The Wizard of Oz, bright colors, a sense of warmth, even a bit of mystery; while the Emerald City looks more like a beacon, a landmark than a city, this snapshot of East Tokyo invites us to peer in deeper and to learn more.

As the opening progresses, the portrait of this neighborhood only grows more inviting:

This is the first ground-level shot of the neighborhood, and isn’t it just cozy? Brightly lit storefronts and cars in the foreground, a meandering road leading up to the neighborhoods on the hilltops, speckled with multi-colored lights of their own. Turn off the storefronts, remove the cars, darken the hill, and you’d have a shot ready-made for a ghost story. Instead, Kondo goes out of his way to make us feel at home here:

See what I mean? Here we get another shot overlooking the city. However, instead of the detached, birds-eye view from the opening shot, we get a view from someone’s back porch! Hell, there’s even a sleeping cat perched there, the light from the house reminding us that we are home, no longer wandering (or… flying?). The colors of the skyline are more defined than the watercolor splotches of the opening. Again, the key here is tone: a city and its skyline can help define the tone of a scene. Uncertainty makes us paranoid. This shot, coupled with the ones before it, create about as human-feeling a city as you’ll find.

And here is the first shot of our protagonist, Shizuku. The film has finally established its where enough to begin to show us the who that live within. Again, note the lighting; we can only tell it’s nighttime because of the shots that came before.

Shizuku is walking out of a grocery store, a location that is often used to symbolize all that is sterile and nightmarish about quiet suburban life. In The Hurt Locker, a grocery store is more frightening to Jeremy Renner than defusing IEDs in Iraq.

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Whisper of the Heart isn’t interested in portraying suburban unrest, however. For the purposes of this story, this little corner of the city needs to feel warm and comforting. It needs to be the light at the beginning of the tunnel. The significant lyric within the song playing over the scene is not the “country roads” at all; it’s where they lead, and where Shiziku is headed: home.

So why are light, comfort, and “home” so important to this opening? Whisper of the Heart’s drama hinges almost entirely on uncertainty. Not just any uncertainty, but the uncertainty of adolescence. Shizuku worries that she might not get into a good high school. It might not matter, because all she wants to do is write, and she worries she might never be good enough at that. The boy she thinks is her adversary turns out to be pretty cool. She likes him. A lot. Except he plans on leaving Japan for an long apprenticeship in Italy. These are all find and dandy plot points, but they don’t resonate unless it’s clear that they are genuinely shaking Shizuku’s world. And the best way to tell a story of teenage drama and make it resonate is to start at a place familiar and comforting, so that we understand how much each aspect of the story poses such a genuine challenge to Shizuku. It would be easy to turn this plot into a comedy. But when romance and school and anxiety are what you are venturing into from a place of unpreparedness, they can seem as dramatic and profound as anything.

And that it why it’s crucial for Whisper of the Heart to establish a sense of “Home” in its opening scene. And that is why the lighting is key. We aren’t just meeting Shizuku here; we are visiting her home. We start high above her city, narrow our view down to the street until we find Shizuku, and then she leads us to the place she is beginning from: her apartment, where she lives with her parents and sister.

There was no plot-related need for Yoshifumi Kondo to take this roundabout way of introducing us to Shizuku. He could have started at her school, or in the library, anywhere he saw fit. Instead, he introduces us to her home first. This is a film about a teenage girl realizing that she is going to have to find her place in the world, that growing up can be a terrifying thing, even when (and perhaps because) it so often consists simply of waiting through the unknown. And that carries far more weight if the place from which we launch is well-established. Once we feel at home, we don’t want to leave. Whisper of the Heart is about that feelings that arise when we realize that staying forever is not an option.

(I will work on parts 2 and 3 soon, but this one post has been holding up my blog forever, and I’m desperate to write a few more non-Ghibli posts this week)

(also: all uncredited images were captured by me)

Hey!

My Anime Boston panel has come and gone, freeing me to write about movies regularly again.

This week’s coming attractions include my next Movie Review Roulette entry (The Princess Bride), an essay-version of my Anime Boston panel (about the visual language of Stuido Ghibli) and some new entries in an old feature I ran a while ago called “Fun With Opening Shots”.

Thanks for your patience!

The 86th Academy Awards: Surveying the damage

I had my best year ever as prediction percentage goes: 20/24, an astounding .833 batting average. Hall of fame, here I come!

Well, hold up, the Keepers of Clutch Picks say. Did he get the picks that mattered? Did he come through when the pressure was on? Well, let’s see the four I missed.

1. Best Short Film (Live Action)

My pick: Avant que de tout perdre (Just Before Losing Everything)

The winner: Helium

Come on, who doesn’t guess this category? I guarantee you that half the Oscar voters voting in the category don’t really give a damn. It’s not like they’re ignorant about this stuff.

2. Best Documentary Feature

My pick: The Square

The winner: 20 Feet From Stardom

All right, I should have thought about this category more. As I said when I made the predictions, the ceremony was two hours away and I was hungry and wanted to get some dinner. So I rushed this pick and ate some delicious homemade chicken noodle soup. It was really damn good, and worth the tradeoff for not thinking about this category long enough to realize that a movie about backup singers for legendary performers is the stuff Best Picture winners are made of, never mind Best Documentary winners.

3. Best Original Screenplay

My pick: Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell, American Hustle

The winner: Spike Jonze, Her

No more excuses: I thought this one over and made the wrong pick. Her was on stable ground with wins at the Golden Globes and Writer’s Guild Awards.  American Hustle did win the BAFTA, and David O. Russell has been very present at the Oscars in recent years without taking any hardware of his own. He’s worked with pretty much the entire Academy, right? So they’d vote for him this time, right?

On the other hand, he’s the same guy once got into a fistfight with George Clooney over his, Russell’s, treatment of the crew of Three Kings. In that case, perhaps the surprise would be if he ever did win.

4. Best Picture

My pick: Gravity

The winner: 12 Years a Slave

I… just… oy.

How did I screw this one up? Everything was going so well. Yeah, I’d missed a couple, but they were understandable. I had gotten every single Gravity pick right to this point. I’d navigated the uncertain waters of Supporting Actress and Adapted Screenplay, calling their wins for 12 Years a Slave.

Short answer: I tried to make the bold prediction.

Never, ever try to make the bold prediction and expect it to pay off.

Granted, Gravity winning wouldn’t have been an upset at all. It won seven Oscars, including Best Director. But the consensus leading up to the Oscars was that this category would split with Best Director. It was obvious. With the Oscars, the obvious tends to happen. ‘

And more than that, this was an obvious result I was rooting for! 12 Years a Slave was my favorite film of 2013, with Gravity not far behind. A split would serve both films well, rewarding both Alfonso Cuaron and Steve McQueen for their remarkable achievements.

It was the easy pick.

And yet I scoffed. Picture/Director splits are never this easy to predict, right? Remember when everyone and their grandmas picked The King’s Speech to win Best Picture and The Social Network to win for direction? Remember when the thisclose race for Best Picture between The Departed, Babel, and Little Miss Sunshine ended up being a pretty unsuspenseful win for Best Director winner The Departed?

But I was wrong. This one was that easy to predict. On an Oscar night devoid of surprises, I tried to inject some suspense with this pick. It backfired.

And thus, I will always look at my .833 batting average wondering why it wasn’t .875. I didn’t come through in the clutch, when it mattered most, with the biggest award of them all.

Ah well. There’s always next year.

Other thoughts:

- Alfonso Cuaron is the first Latin American director to win best director, and 12 Years a Slave is the first film by a black director to win Best Picture. Yes, the response to these facts should be “good lord, about damn time Academy”, but seriously: representation in media is important. Hollywood should not pat itself on the back for finally acknowledging non-white filmmakers for once, but breakthroughs are breakthroughs and deserve to be celebrated when they happen.

- Pinoy pride: “Let it Go” co-writer Robert Lopez is Filipino-American, making him the first Pinoy Oscar winner. As a prior recipient of Emmy, Grammy, and Tony Awards, he also became just the twelfth member of EGOT. Here’s a Filipino fist bump, Robert.

- Gravity won seven Oscars while losing out on Best Picture. That’s the most for a Best Picture loser since Star Wars won seven, but lost Best Picture of 1977 to Annie Hall. The record for wins while losing Best Picture belongs to Cabaret, which won 8 Oscars in 1972 but lost Best Picture to The Godfather.

- Gravity is also the second straight film to win the most Oscars while falling short for Best Picture. Last year, Life of Pi topped all winners with four Oscars, including Best Director for Ang Lee. However, it lost Best Picture to Argo.

- This is the second straight year that Best Picture and Best Director have split. The last time this happened in back to back years was 1948 and 1949. In 1948, John Huston won best Director for directing Treasure of the Sierra Madre, while Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet won Best Picture. In 1949, Joseph L. Mankiewicz won the first of his two straight Best Director Oscars for A Letter to Three Wives, while All the Kings Men took Best Picture.

- American Hustle went 0 for 10, joining True Grit, Gangs of New York, The Color Purple and The Turning Point as films to earn double-digit nominations only to leave the Oscars empty handed.

That’s all the trivia I can muster. Good Oscars, everyone. Good night.

Oscar predictions

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Seriously, these are tonight?

Wait, 2 hours?

Good lord.

OK then, this is one tradition I can’t abandon, even if I tend not to be very good at these. Here are my crazy rushed Oscar predictions.

Picks in bolded italics

Best Picture

Gravity

12 Years a Slave

Philomena

American Hustle

Her

Nebraska

The Wolf of Wall Street

Dallas Buyers Club

12 Years a Slave has been the frontrunner since its appearance at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, where it won the coveted Audience Award. Since then, however, its footing has never felt secure. This is a pure hunch pick, which pretty much always backfire on me, but so it goes. Cuaron’s directing Oscar for Gravity seems like a sure thing. That alone makes me more confident in its Best Picture chances. Neat and tidy best director/best picture splits pretty much don’t happen when they’re predicted (See, the predicted The Kings Speech/Social Network and The Departed/either Little Miss Sunshine or Babel splits that didn’t happen). I want 12 Years a Slave to win, but I fear that it committed the sin of not giving the Academy what it wants. The Academy likes cathartic films that make you feel good about humanity. 12 Years a Slave is a better film for providing no catharsis, just demonstrative suffering. But that’s not the sort of film that tends to win Best Picture, not with a populist work of impeccable craftsmanship like Gravity in the mix.

Actor

Christian Bale, “American Hustle”

Bruce Dern, “Nebraska”

Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Wolf of Wall Street”

Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave”

Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club”

I want to pick Ejiofor. If 12 Years a Slave does end up winning best picture without Steve McQueen winning best director, then I cannot fathom how someone could vote for it without voting for Ejiofor. His performance is the film’s heartbeat. But McConaughey has been a force this award’s season, as evidenced by his win in yesterday’s Independent Spirit Awards, which 12 Years a Slave otherwise swept. It’s his to lose.

Actress

Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine”

Sandra Bullock, “Gravity”

Judi Dench, “Philomena”

Amy Adams, “American Hustle”

Meryl Streep, “August: Osage County”

The accusations against Woody Allen by Dylan Farrow are sort of an elephant in the room here. I don’t think it’ll be enough to derail Blanchett, who has been the favorite since the film premiered and has never relinquished that status. Amy Adams might sneak an upset, what with this being her fifth nomination without a win so far. I think Bullock might snare her share of votes from Gravity fans. But Blanchett will likely win out in the end.

Supporting actor

Barkhad Abdi, “Captain Phillips”

Bradley Cooper, “American Hustle”

Michael Fassbender, “12 Years a Slave”

Jared Leto, “Dallas Buyers Club”

Jonah Hill, “Wolf of Wall Street”

Leto and McConaughey have been a joint awards force this year. Leto has won most everything, save the BAFTA where Dallas Buyers Club was surprisingly snubbed completely. Tellingly, Barkhad Abdi won there, and without Leto he’d be the unquestionable favorite for his movie-stealing performance in Captain Phillips. My renegade side wants to predict Abdi, but I can’t if I’m going to be honest with myself.

Supporting actress

Sally Hawkins, “Blue Jasmine”

Jennifer Lawrence, “American Hustle”

Lupita Nyong’o, “12 Years a Slave”

Julia Roberts, “August: Osage County”

June Squibb, “Nebraska”

This is between Nyong’o and Lawrence. Lawrence’s turn is exactly the sort of comedic performance that can and often does win the supporting categories. If she hadn’t won last year, I think she’d be the frontrunner. But I’m not just predicting Nyong’o because she is deserving of this award(and she is very deserving); she also has all the makings of a star that the Academy would likely feel remiss not to recognize now, as her star is rocketing upward. Lawrence’s wins at the Golden Globes and BAFTA give me pause with this prediction, but this is still Nyong’o’s to lose.

Directing

Alfonso Cuarón, “Gravity”

Steve McQueen, “12 Years A Slave”

Alexander Payne, “Nebraska”

David O. Russell, “American Hustle”

Martin Scorsese, “The Wolf of Wall Street”

He has won pretty much everything. Barring a 12 Years a Slave joint Best Picture/Best Director haul (which is more than possible) he’s the runaway favorite.

Writing, adapted screenplay

“Before Midnight”

“Captain Phillips”

“Philomena”

“12 Years a Slave”

“The Wolf of Wall Street”

If 12 Years a Slave wins Best Picture, it’s a lock here. If it doesn’t, it’s still the huge favorite.

Writing, original screenplay

“American Hustle”

“Blue Jasmine”

“Dallas Buyers Club”

“Her”

“Nebraska”

I can’t imagine the Academy letting American Hustle go home emptyhanded. Her is an excellent bet as well, but Hustle has 10 nominations, and this is one where it has any sort of frontrunner potential.

Documentary feature

“The Act of Killing”

“Cutie and the Boxer”

“Dirty Wars”

“The Square”

“20 Feet From Stardom”

The Act of Killing is the critical darling here, which hasn’t always meant much in this category. The Square is timely and relevant to things we see in the day to day news. With no popular documentary to steal the spotlight like Searching for Sugar Man last year, The Square is my bet.

Foreign language film

“The Great Beauty”

“The Hunt”

“The Broken Circle Breakdown”

“The Missing Picture”

“Omar”

Critical darling + precursor success. My notes are going to be short from here on out, by the way, because I need to eat dinner.

Cinematography

“The Grandmaster”

“Gravity”

“Inside Llewyn Davis”

“Nebraska”

“Prisoners”

Lubezki has won every award under the sun for his amazing work here. He gets the award he should have won three times already for The New World, Children of Men, and The Tree of Life.

Animated feature film

“The Croods”

“Despicable Me 2”

“Frozen”

“Ernest & Celestine”

“The Wind Rises”

Disney’s first win in this category will go to the film that might have just kickstarted its next renaissance as a creative and popular force in animated movies.

Costume design

“American Hustle”

“The Grandmaster”

“The Great Gatsby”

“The Invisible Woman”

“12 Years a Slave”

Gaudy and period and Oscar precedent for Catherine Martin. I’m not even writing sentences anymore.

Makeup and hairstyling

“Dallas Buyers Club”

“Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa”

“The Lone Ranger”

Just because I imagine Oscar voters not being able to comprehend giving an Oscar to the other two.

Documentary short subject

“CaveDigger”

“Facing Fear”

“Karma Has No Walls”

“The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life”

“Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hill”

The rule with this category: Predict on the title, based on the amount of suffering or redemption conveyed. Seriously: without the subtitle of Music Saved My Life, I’d be going with Facing Fear, with more confidence than almost any other category.

Music, original score

John Williams, “The Book Thief”

Steven Price, “Gravity”

William Butler and Owen Pallett, “Her”

Alexandre Desplat, “Philomena”

Thomas Newman, “Saving Mr. Banks”

Her is a good bet if the Academy wants to show it has a bit of modernity in its taste, as they did when The Social Network’s dissonant electronic score won here. As it is, Gravity’s score is bombastic and memorable and, more importantly, used well.

Music, original song

“Happy” from “Despicable Me 2”

“Let it Go,” from “Frozen”

“The Moon Song,” from “Her”

“Oridinary Love,” from “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”

I dare you to bet against this behemoth of a song that may have single-handedly revived Disney. Yes, that’s probably overstating it, but still: no one song is as memorably tied to the film it’s in as Let it Go (even though I think Happy and The Moon Song are better).

 

Production design

“American Hustle”

“Gravity”

“The Great Gatsby”

“Her”

“12 Years a Slave”

When in doubt, glitz.

 

Short film, animated

“Feral”

“Get a Horse!”

“Mr. Hublot”

“Possessions”

“Room on the Broom”

It’s about a cute, giant robot dog. I refuse to bet against that.

 

Short film, live action

“Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me)”

“Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything)”

“Helium”

“Pitaako Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?)”

“The Voorman Problem”

My annual “Close my eyes and click at random” pick.

 

Film Editing

“American Hustle”

“Captain Phillips”

“Dallas Buyers Club”

“Gravity”

“12 Years a Slave”

If Gravity sweeps, it wins here. I’m predicting a Gravity sweep.

 

Sound editing

“All Is Lost”

“Captain Phillips”

“Gravity”

“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”

“Lone Survivor”

Gravity sweep.

 

Sound mixing

“Captain Phillips”

“Gravity”

“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”

“Inside Llewyn Davis”

“Lone Survivor”

Yep.

 

Visual effects

“Gravity”

“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”

“The Lone Ranger”

“Iron Man 3”

“Star Trek Into Darkness”

If Gravity bombs tonight, it still wins here. If it sweeps and doesn’t win here, then I just give up and promise to never subject you to my attempts at predicting these godforsaken awards again.

Reviewing Ghibli: The Wind Rises

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There is an amusing line early on in The Wind Rises that might hint as to why Hayao Miyazaki retired (yes, we’ve heard it before, but let’s go with it for now).

The film often uses a narrative device in which film’s protagonist, aeronautic engineer Jiro Horikoshi dreams about meeting with his hero, Italian engineer and plane designer Giovanni Caproni. Dream-Caproni advises the young Jiro that “artists are only creative for ten years. Make the most of your ten years.”

Another line, again involving an engineer Jiro idolizes, goes the other way. Jiro and his friend and fellow engineer Honjo are lamenting how they may never catch up to the genius of German engineers Hugo Junkers, whose designs they envy artistically, whom the Japanese military envies for other reasons. Even if they make great advances themselves in five years, Jiro says, that’s five more years for Junkers to continue to innovate.

You could apply both these lines of thought to Miyazaki’s career in many ways, and it’s not hard to imagine that Miyazaki is engaging in at least a little bit of self-reflection. Perhaps Miyazaki feels that he is long overdue to call it quits, his career as a director having spanned 35 years now. His most praised film, Spirited Away, was released 12 years ago. His filmography stands against any contemporary director’s. If artists have a ten year peak, it’s easy to imagine Miyazaki sees himself as having had his, and that it’s finally time to wind down.

Or perhaps he sees himself as Junkers, driven to continue setting the bar for other artists to follow. Perhaps that’s why he has continually come out of retirement. There’s always one more idea, one last work of art.

That’s all conjecture over a couple throwaway lines, of course. But they stuck with me after seeing The Wind Rises for a reason. It is Miyazaki’s most personal film, a film by a man in love with flight and creating beauty about a man obsessed with both those things. It also is emblematic of Miyazaki’s most triumphant qualities as a filmmaker and, on occasion, his biggest pratfalls. I don’t know if The Wind Rises is a grand success for Miyazaki or a more mid-level one; it’s simply too fresh on my mind. Such are its weaknesses that I left thinking that this could easily have been the perfect film that it is not. But such are its strengths that it is his first film since Spirited Away to linger so vividly on my mind afterwards.

This is Miyazaki’s first film with no fantasy elements. And if it is his last film ever, that’s a shame; his signature touches make for a wondrous translation of the real world into his animated realms. I often see western critics puzzled by the increased likelihood of anime to take place in a world that does not require animation. Why not just film it?

But live-action-as-default is no less arbitrary than choosing to animate something. All films attempt to create a world we want to spend our time in. Live-action is no less fiction than animation. And I cannot imagine any current live-action director using the screen as a canvas like Miyazaki does here.

At times, I couldn’t take my eyes off the corners of the screen, which were continually brimming with detail, nature, people going about their lives, colors, life. Miyazaki has never been one for a static canvas, but he outdoes himself with this film, which balances the calm demeanor of its protagonist with a screen that never stops moving.

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Miyazaki constructs some virtuosic scenes here. The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 is portrayed vividly, with the quake literally rippling across the ground like a shockwave. The scene plays out at length, allowing Jiro to meet the character who is both part of the film’s centerpiece, and ultimately its biggest problem. A young girl named Naoko is traveling on the same train as Jiro when the quake strikes, and Naoko’s maid is injured. Jiro helps them reach safety in a sequence both patient and urgent, observant of the devastation of the quake as it focuses on Jiro’s single-minded aim to rescue these particular people.

Of course, Jiro eventually meets Naoko again. They fall in love almost instantly. Naoko is also sick with tuberculosis, and spends much of the film bedridden. Without divulging too much, I saw Naoko as a missed opportunity for Miyazaki. Once she returns to the film, she is given little to do but be supportive of Jiro. Actions take place off screen that I regretted weren’t given their own scenes. At one point, Jiro’s younger sister Kayo (a classic Miyazaki scene-stealing supporting character) visits them. She tells Jiro that she has become close with Naoko. Their friendship is essential to one of the film’s most significant scenes. Couldn’t we once have seen Naoko and Kayo on screen together? Such a scene wouldn’t have disrupted this patient and observant film, and done far more for giving their friendship weight than Miyazaki telling us about it. It’s an odd misstep for Miyazaki to underwrite a character as significant to the story as Naoko.

Jiro has more than his share of scenes that do little more than show him forging relationships and friendships. These scenes are uniformly pleasurable. An array of characters fill the screen, none of them throwaways. But Naoko is not just a supporting player; she is a character of huge significance to the story. The film suffers for her being shortchanged.

Issues with Naoko’s writing aside, the film nails the element at its heart: the wonder of flight. Miyazaki has never hid his love for flight, and here he has finally composed his love poem to it. He views Jiro as a humble artist, aching to create the work of art that he envisions so clearly in his head, and dismayed that his creations are going to be used in warfare.

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The Wind Rises hums along, avoiding a typical plot arc. There isn’t a single villainous character. Naoko’s battle with tuberculosis provides more drama than the central plot. Jiro simply wants to make things fly, and fly beautifully. And every time they do, it is a triumph, for him and for us. And unfortunately, what makes his planes beautiful is also what makes them appeal so much to military forces. He speaks of making a perfectly smooth, light plane, minimizing air resistance. He casually says that guns would weigh the plane down too much, so they can be discarded. He doesn’t seem to, or chooses not to, grasp that for armies and air forces, the guns are the  point; the planes are merely their flying mounts.

If Miyazaki has ever had a fairly consistent weakness, it’s been plotting his arcs and ending his stories on the right note. Miyazaki has no equal at constructing worlds and setting them into motion. But sometimes, he has some trouble knowing when and how hard to hit the brakes. The Wind Rises’ loses its footing in its last scene. It addresses the plot elements that need to be addressed and then ends. It doesn’t quite have the gravity that its overlying tone of deep regret demands. And its final message, exemplified by the Paul Valery quote that gives the film its name (“The wind is rising! We must try to live!”) doesn’t have as much impact without that gravity to rise against.

This is uneven, imperfect Miyazaki. But it is also gorgeous, bittersweet, haunting Miyazaki. It’s one of his most flawed films. But films are not tests. We don’t add up a tally of right and wrong answers and arrive at a final score. It’s his most unforgettable film in years. And I mean that in a literal sense. When I saw Princess Mononoke for the first time, I couldn’t sleep that night, its images so stirred my imagination. The Wind Rises has not left my mind. It could have, should have, been better in many ways. Most of the time, it’s a reminder that Hayao Miyazaki’s films contain uncommon grace and beauty. I didn’t want to leave this world he had created, even if, for once, it was my own.

(all media from the official The Wind Rises tumblr)

Past Reviewing Ghibli entries:

Spirited Away

Princess Mononoke

Castle in the Sky

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

Whisper of the Heart

My Neighbor Totoro

Movie review roulette selection #5

First, the pool:

Dark City

Raise the Red Lantern

Ratatouille

The Princess Bride

Children of Men

Yojimbo

Being John Malkovich

Millennium Actress

La Dolce Vita

Rear Window

Jaws

Arsenic and Old Lace

Casablanca

Paths of Glory

The Tree of Life

Then, the random selection:

As you wish.

Replacing The Princess Bride in the pool: Night of the Living Dead

I’m looking forward to this one. The Princess Bride ranks behind only The Lion King and Princess Mononoke on my most-watched list.

Movie Review Roulette #4: Au Revoir Les Enfants

AuRevoirLesEnfants

“I will remember every second of that January morning until I die.”

The last shot of Au Revoir Les Enfants is a closeup of the face of its lead character, Julien Quentin, a boy of about 11 attending a Catholic boarding school in Nazi-occupied Paris in 1944.

But the voice delivering those lines is that of Louis Malle, the film’s director.

War films are rarely this personal.

Scratch that. A lot of war films, about both combat and civilian life, are personal. Personal is a wide-spanning word, really. From a literal perspective, Platoon drew largely from Oliver Stone’s experiences as a soldier in the Vietnam War.

On a more interpretive front, it’s no surprise to anyone upon seeing Apocalypse Now that it nearly broke Francis Ford Coppola while he directed it.

No, films about life during war are rarely this vivid a snapshot of life during war, away from the battlefield. Au Revoir Les Enfants is film as autobiography. Louis Malles directed, wrote, and produced it. He recounts one winter of his childhood. It opens with notes of chilly remembrance and ends with sad whispers of long-held regret.

This not not a nostalgic film. Some films about World War II are. Hope and Glory comes to mind. They attempt to find room for warmth and celebrations of the human spirit in the context of something that is objectively horrific. Whether or not they succeed is a topic for another post.

Many other films that look at civilian life during war are about its horrors. Grave of the Fireflies and Come and See are the two best examples. Theirs are stories of suffering and the senseless death that war inflicts upon non-combatants.

But Malle, for the most part, seemed to live a comparatively privileged life during the war, and he knows it. Malle seems to have no sepia-toned glasses about his childhood, not when he was attending school in the middle of a war. He is establishing a time, a place, and people. Compared to many in Europe, Julien is safe. The war seems distant to him. He is free to get into squabbles with his classmates, to trade jams for valuable stamps on the fly, to surreptitiously read books by flashlight at night. He can live a relatively normal life. And he is free to get to know the new kid in his school, a quiet, kindly boy named Jean Bonnet.

It is obvious to us that Bonnet is Jewish, and that the priests at the school are hiding him, along with two other boys. This is not mined for melodrama. The film’s storytelling consists simply scenes from a child’s life. Every day, in class, in church, in those spare moments when he can read his books and observe his surroundings, Julien gleans information. He slowly pieces together than Jean is Jewish. He realizes this as a fact. On one hand, it’s heartening that this realization changes nothing for Julien. On the other, he doesn’t seem to grasp why it’s so crucial that Jean keep his religion secret. When Julien tells Jean what he has discovered, Jean fights him. Every day for Jean is a matter of survival. Julien doesn’t grasp this.

For Julien, his classmate’s religion is not much more than a fact. He can’t grasp the anti-Semitic sentiments of some of this classmates. Prejudice is learned, after all, never innate.

But he does not immediately become friends with Jean, either. Julien plays the part of a schoolyard tough, with a mean streak that is amusingly forced, but an accurate depiction of how some kids climb to the top of the schoolyard food chain. Their relationship is icy at first. Julien sees Jean as an annoying new kid, and Jean keeps his head down, avoiding conflict and spending time with his own friends. Julien and Jean become friends the way friends often do. They slowly find some common interests, mainly books and playing piano. They begin to spend time together. They get to know each other innately, without trying. Some friendships are almost immediate. Others are grown into.

I often praise films for getting the rhythms of life just right. Au Revoir Les Enfants at times feels like a documentary of life in a school in 1944. We infer the drama involving Jean’s religion, because we know the stakes. Julien doesn’t comprehend them. And that’s what makes the film’s ending so heartbreaking.

The ending begins on a familiar note, with the students in class getting an update on the war effort. Then a German soldier enters the classroom, followed by a Gestapo officer. The rhythm is broken.

Au Revoir Les Enfants is reminiscent of the Catholic sacrament of Confession. Catholics making a confession are expected to desire repentance, and to make a full examination of their conscience before confessing their sins. Most of Au Revoir Les Enfants plays out like that examination, a series of scenes that lack much plot connectivity but together construct a narrative. It’s a narrative full of silly, childish sins (stealing from the pantry, fighting with other students), similar to the type that Julien confesses to a priest in a scene early in the film (“I fought with my sister over break, and that is all” he says to a gently skeptical Père Jean, the priest who runs the school).

When making a confession, part of the deal is that you make an honest effort to change your ways after the fact. And there was nothing Malle could do to change what happened that January morning. All he could do was tell the story.

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