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.
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.
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.
Past Reviewing Ghibli entries:
First, the pool:
Raise the Red Lantern
The Princess Bride
Children of Men
Being John Malkovich
La Dolce Vita
Arsenic and Old Lace
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.
“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.