director Hayao Miyazaki
viewed: 02/23/2014 at Embarcadero Cinema, SF, CA
“The last Miyazaki film.” That’s how this film has been come to be known and perhaps how it will best be remembered. That is, unless it turns out to not be “the last Miyazaki film”. At one point, Ponyo (2008) looked to be “the last Miyazaki film.” Now it’s just Ponyo.
What “the last Miyazaki film” has come to mean is the last film that he directs. Since Ponyo, he’s been involved with both The Secret World of Arrietty (2010) and From Up on Poppy Hill (2011), both of which came from screenplays that he collaborated on. I would actually hazard that The Secret World of Arrietty is a pretty good Miyazaki film (directed as it was by Hiromasa Yonebayashi) whereas From Up on Poppy Hill (directed by Miyazaki’s son Gorō Miyazaki) and The Wind Rises are definitely nice but lesser efforts.
There is a lot of buzz about any Miyazaki film, particularly if this master filmmaker is indeed stepping down not to create any more wonderful movies. But sadly, these last two have been both much more naturalistic stories, but also quite sentimental affairs. In some ways the films are perhaps even more interested in Japan itself, depicting a more realistic world, or at least a bit more literal than the worlds of his fantasy films.
But I would argue that fantasy is what makes most animation great, and is the core of the best and most wonderful of Miyazaki’s oeuvre. In The Wind Rises, fantasy is relegated to the dream sequences, and though there is magic here, it’s steeped in a softened, misty-eyed gaze at one of Miyazaki’s favorite things, wondrous flying machines.
The film is a fictionalized account of the life of Japanese engineer/designer Jiro Horikoshi, who among his aspirations, developed Japanese fighter aircraft for WWII. Based on a manga by Hayao Miyazaki himself, this story has managed to brook controversy, paying homage as it does to the designer of war machines for the antagonist side of the war. It’s easy to see what Miyazaki appreciates here, a man who is dedicated to design and engineering and flight, actually quite nationalistic in its way, a man who tried to distance himself from the uses of his developments and technologies.
The film delves into this, how he travels to Germany to gain insights from the Nazi regime in their airpower and technology. It does sidestep the work of brokering with the devil that could inflame and infuriate people who want to find controversy here, both in its relationship with Germany and its portrayal of Japan. There is an aspect of denial in this.
Oddly enough, I think if it was more deftly handled, this idea might have come off better. It is possible to try to appreciate things out of context or in different contexts, but this film is more pure paean and there is a great deal of old Japan lovingly depicted here.
It’s a long film (126 minutes) with lots of quiet moments and slow development, and it feels every bit as long as it is.
The funny thing for me is that back in 2009 when we saw Ponyo thinking it was his last film, it was a feeling that he ended on a very strong note. I haven’t re-seen the film since then, but it’s fantasy and magic bore great charm and inventiveness, wonder and character utterly unique. And new. Here, this feels like a much more unsatisfying ending to a great career. Not a bad film, but missing a lot of the greatness that one comes to associate with Miyazaki.
Will it be his last in any way? Time will tell. And eventually, perspective will be allowed on this film, final or not.
Last comment is that we saw this film in the newly refurbished Embarcadero Theater. Made in the model of the Kabuki across town, it has a bar and assigned seating, big pleatherish chairs, this new more comfortable and perhaps more elegant or “date night”-friendly style of cinema. The best improvement to my mind was the layout of the theater which wound up with a much larger screen than my last visit to the Embarcadero Theater.
The kids felt much as I did. Felix describing it as “sentimental” but neither loving nor disliking the film.