Update March 2: Frozen got the Oscar.
The Wind Rises could very well swoop down and snatch the animation Oscar from Disney’s jaws.
It’s as good as Frozen in its own way, it’s the swan song from a beloved animation (and manga) storyteller and it has universal themes. The subject of the story, however, could be its downfall.
The Wind Rises centers on Jiro Horikoshi, the aeronautical engineer who designed the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, one of the weapons that enabled Japan to expand its empire in the late ’30s, early ’40s. That alone might make Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters pause. It’s also a serious adult movie, despite being animated. No singing, no dancing, no happy endings; a main character dies, the hero is left with a bittersweet legacy.
Why did Hayao Miyazaki pick such a topic? Because he could mold the story to illustrate the things that are important to him: following your dreams against adversity, staying true to yourself, opening yourself to outside ideas and working them into your own vision. Oh, and flying. A biopic about an aeronautical engineer certainly lets Miyazaki indulge his love of soaring over the landscape.
The film cannot be taken as serious biography. The love story is fiction, especially in the way Miyazaki has this one unwind. And the hero is a little too perfect: generous, kind, smart, handsome in his pastel lavender suits, dedicated and brave. As a kid, he stops the bullying of a smaller boy, tosses the aggressor over his shoulder—then get told by his mother that violence never solves anything. When an earthquake strikes, he helps a little girl get home as Tokyo burns. He speaks several languages and is able to calm a bombastic German soldier with just words. (He does smoke a lot, so that’s at least one flaw.)
This puts Horikoshi on a pedestal that the real Jiro Horikoshi likely never could live up to. But I think Miyazaki is after something else here. This is a story not only about dreams but about how dreams of men often are stuck in the dark clay of his baser instincts. Horikoshi has a dream of flying, of breaking the bonds of Earth, but to get the money to make those dreams reality, he has to accept the reality of how his beautiful machines will be used. Like Werner von Braun, who had visions of sending rockets to Mars, but he had to see them land on London before they could go elsewhere. Horikoshi had visions of his planes carrying people from place to place, but first he had to see his planes carry bombs.
So instead of simply glorifying a builder of war machines, Miyazaki perhaps is showing us how we allow our dreams to be co-opted by fear and loathing. These people could always refuse the militarization of their dreams, but that could mean prison and someone else doing it instead. So, they go along with the program. And perhaps, in the end, they do as Horikoshi does at the end of The Wind Rises: Walk through a graveyard where the skeletons of their ideals lie in ruins. (He is reported to have said in an interview with the Asahi Shibun the Zero “represented one of the few things we Japanese could be proud of—they were a truly formidable presence, and so were the pilots who flew them.” Sounds like a little flag-waving from the maker of My Neighbor Tortoro, but he has criticized the Japanese government on war-related issues, and did protest the U.S. action in Iraq. So he’s proud of Japanese know-how on building the machine, but not what it was used for. But, again, if not for the military, the thing might never have been built. So his—and our—ambivalence stands to illustrate the dilemma.)
Whatever, the film is as glorious as any other Mitazaki production, with sumptuous visuals and an incredible attention to detail. Never thought I’d ever see a realistic animated slide rule, but that’s Miyazaki for you.
What chance does the film have in making off with that Oscar? Good, but I’m still going with Frozen. I can tell you, though, I won’t be unhappy to see an upset here.
(Updated March 1 to add more on Miyazaki’s anti-war stance.)