Pass the Popcorn: The Wind Rises

August 4, 2015

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I hadn’t intended to time a review of Hayao Miyazaki’s final film, The Wind Rises, for the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb. But it turns out to be perfect timing.

Every scene of this movie is visually gorgeous, sometimes in a reserved way but often strikingly so. It is a fitting consummation of Miyazaki’s mastery of his medium. But it seems at first a radical break in content. It is the only Miyazaki movie that takes place in the real world – well, more or less the real world. He introduces a few fantastical elements, but they are limited to dreams and visions, and of course the somewhat fantastic aeronautical physics for which Miyazaki is so famous. When the characters are awake, they are living in the real world. The closest Miyazaki has ever come to the real world before was in his first film, Lupin III, and that hardly counts, both because its genre conventions take us well beyond the boundaries of the “real” world and because Miyazaki was forced to work within another author’s established universe. As soon as Miyazaki gained the freedom to make his own movies he leapt into the world of magical fantasy and never looked back – until now.

Update: Just watched Nausicaa with my daughter (her first time) and it made me realize in the paragraph above I forgot about Nausicaa, which is fantastical sci-fi and thus not “realistic,” but contains no magical realism as such. Even the aeronautical physics are not all that far off from reality! Fascinating to reflect upon Miyazaki’s career arc!

This is also his only movie that is concerned with real historical events. It is a heavily fictionalized account of the life of Jiro Horikoshi, who invented the Zero fighter plane and helped transform Japan from a comparatively primitive backwater into a global technology power. After the final scene fades, a title card appears informing us that the movie is a “tribute” to Jiro and to Tatsuo Hori, who wrote a short story from which this movie gets its title and from which it borrows core elements of its love story.

Wind-Rises

On a deeper level, it is almost his only movie where the real drama is in the writ-small world of one person. There are no epic quests here, no dispossessed princesses with magic amulets or gods warring to destroy humanity. Kiki’s Delivery Service comes close to this, but even Kiki discovers the meaning of her gift when she finds that she can use it to intervene in a major event. To find a movie as personal as this one in Miyazaki’s corpus, one in which no great fate rests in the balance of our hero’s actions, we must go all the way back to Totoro. But the Wind Rises goes even further than Totoro; here, our inability to change the really great historical events is actually central to the movie’s message.

Now I’m going to say something that may seem to contradict what I’ve just said. This is, at long last, Miyazaki’s political movie. Many of his works have had political themes; Miyazaki is well known as an environmentalist, a pacifist, and a former Marxist. But none of his previous movies was really a movie about those things. Only the shallow environmentalists think Princess Mononoke or Ponyo is really about environmentalism. Only the shallow pacifists think Howl’s Moving Castle is really about pacifism. Meanwhile, this movie – this highly personal movie that is all about one man, a man who knew he couldn’t stop war and therefore didn’t try – is the really pacifist movie.

And yet – contradiction looping back on contradiction – this pacifist movie actually argues that we can’t avoid politics, can’t avoid being part of our nations and the calling to make them great.

Okay, I’ve made this movie sound like a tangled mess. It isn’t. It’s quiet and still. The point only becomes confused when you attempt to express it in words rather than simply showing it in a story.

The whole point of the movie is to ask the great political question – what role does politics play in the meaning of human life? –  and give an answer that we Americans have always rejected with repugnance but which the whole rest of the world has always taken quite seriously, even when it disagrees with it. It is simply this: that it is a deadly mistake to look to our nations for justice, for they never deliver; but it is possible to look to our nations for identity and for opportunities to serve the world around us.

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It would be flippant to say that the real message of this movie is “the men who built the horrible Japanese war machine were people too!” But that does come close to expressing it.

Our dreams are cursed. If we build our dreams, the things we build will be used for evil and destruction. Should we therefore not build? Give up dreaming? As one character puts it, “would you rather live in a world without pyramids?”

Jiro wants to build airplanes. He dreams of marvelous airplanes, far greater than any that have ever been built before. And the only way to build those dreams is to build warplanes for the military.

But here’s the catch. Jiro doesn’t only want to build better planes because they’re worth building in themselves. He also wants to serve his country – not the war machine, which is unambiguously horrible, but his people. They live in poverty and want. Hungry children are all around him. Japan is so backward that they use oxen to drag the prototype planes from the hangar to the test field.

Jiro knows that he and his team of builders can help catapult Japan out of the economic ghetto. They can feed the hungry children of Japan by building planes – planes that will be used to bomb the children of China.

The idea that Jiro could go build beautiful planes for some other country is not even considered. First, because all countries are viewed as monstrous. How much better would it be to make planes for China, or any other nation? If they’re not the aggressor now, they will be someday. But there is also a sense of duty to one’s own country. Jiro feels responsible to the people of Japan. We cannot escape who we are and where we come from.

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The pacifist nationalism of The Wind Rises ultimately fails to persuade; at least, it didn’t persuade this American. Like most Americans, I think the nation must be made to deliver justice. You can’t remove justice from the political sphere; to put it another way, no matter how beautiful your planes are, it matters whom you make them for. Despite this film’s best efforts – and they are impressive – one cannot escape, or at least I cannot escape, the feeling that Jiro is fleeing from responsibility. Refusing to make planes for a war machine is one of the ways we serve our country.

The attempted tragedy of this movie – we must build our dreams even though they’re used for evil – fails because it is trying to escape from an even deeper tragedy: That the demands of justice are uncompromising and inescapable, that we do not have the option of building planes and then sighing with regret that they’re used for a war of aggression.

We cannot have our cake and eat it, too; we cannot hate or regret injustice and at the same time hate or regret politics.

Castorp

The attempt to do so leads in the darkest directions. Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel Magic Mountain is invoked explicitly in this movie. Hans Castorp himself briefly appears and laments the evils that are arising in the world, wistfully declaring that we can sometimes find a “magic mountain” in our lives where we can forget those evils and find healing – but the evils will always remain. Like that book, The Wind Rises confronts the big questions of the 20th century and is ambiguous about the answers.

But we cannot pretend we’re still in 1924. In The Wind Rises, Castorp doesn’t leave the “magic mountain” to march off into the trenches of WWI; he flees town one step ahead of the secret police. Mann could get away with ambiguous mysticism in 1924, but we who know what came next must not leave things where he left them.


Pass the Popcorn: Bearing New Images

September 2, 2014

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Fans of Hayao Miyazaki (a previous PTP subject) might like to know about this fascinating essay on his critical view of Japanese culture and what he thinks it needs from its filmmakers. Over on Hang Together, I connect his thoughts to western debates about capitalism and the role of entrepreneurs in cultural regeneration:

Verily, freedom and economic development create opportunities for people to distort their desire. But to contract freedom and development would only deliver us into the hands of an elite formed by that cultural decay, locking in the distortion of desire, freezing in place the present decadence. The solution instead lies with those who not only make responsible use of their opportunities, but inspire others to follow them in doing so (“to spur audiences to seek and love the world”).


Pass the Popcorn: Ponyo

August 28, 2009

ponyo

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Quick, before it leaves theaters, go see Ponyo, the latest film from Japanese visionary Hayao Miyazaki. As I’ve written before, Miyazaki’s movies fall into two categories: family features and challenging epics. Ponyo is definitely on the family side of the equation. But I went without kids and loved it as a grown-up, so don’t be deterred. There’s plenty here to enjoy.

Well, OK, maybe not everyone should rush out to see it. If you’re the kind of person who would go to to a movie about the fantastic adventures of a five-year-old whose chance encounter with a magical fish-girl threatens to upset the balance of the magic and human worlds, possibly destroying both, and spend the whole time saying to yourself things like, “Hey, no five-year-old could push something that size on his own! And how come he has the vocabulary of a twelve-year-old?” maybe Ponyo is not for you.

But everyone else should go.

If you plan to see it, stop here. I’m not going to spoil the ending, but the movie reveals itself slowly (as many Miyazaki movies do) and you’ll probably enjoy it more if you don’t know much about it going in.

If, however, you need to be convinced, read on.

Ponyo is the daughter of a sea-wizard and lives with him at the bottom of the ocean. Her father hates the human world and forbids her to see it, which naturally makes her eager to go. But she gets into trouble (of course) and is rescued by a five-year-old boy named Sosuke, who protects her and takes care of her until her father comes to take her back to the sea.

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Ponyo, starved for love in the house of her hard-hearted father and awed by the self-giving kindness of Sosuke, decides she’d rather be human. She gets into her father’s magical works and manages to open a rift in the barrier between the magical and human ecosystems, allowing her to change herself to assume a human form – but also causing a catastrophic disruption of the human ecosystem that leaves an entire town underwater and threatens to do worse.

After her transformation, Ponyo has a foot in both worlds – though she appears human, she can still work magic. Much of the movie’s charm comes from the shared delight of mutual discovery between Ponyo and Sosuke. Sosuke marvels as Ponyo turns a toy boat into a real boat and fixes broken household appliances with a glance; Ponyo is equally blown away by the delights of flashlights, ham sandwiches, and warm towels straight out of the dryer.

ponyo-sosuke toys

But back in the sea, her sea-wizard father and her mother (whose identity I’ll keep under wraps) determine that the only way to close the rift she’s opened and save the human world from destruction is for Ponyo to become entirely one thing or the other. She must either return to the sea, or else complete the transformation, giving up her magic and becoming fully human.

Of course they know Ponyo will be miserable if she returns to the sea, but to become fully human she must be drawn across the divide by a human love – by Sosuke. However, in the process of drawing Ponyo over that love will be tested. Does Sosuke really take care of Ponyo because he cares about her well-being? Or is he just interested in her because she’s magical and fascinating? If Sosuke fails the test, Ponyo’s desire to become human will destroy her.

Ponyo’s mother has faith in the genuineness of human love and thinks it’s better for Ponyo to risk death than to abandon her desires, so she arranges for the transfer. But her father hates humans and fears Sosuke’s love will fail the test. He may or may not be laying plans to interfere.

But all this plot is really irrelevant to the joy of the film. What Miyazaki is giving us here – besides gorgeous visuals and a delightful story in its own right – is a vision of how the world of humanity relates to the world of nature. “Magic” in this movie is symbolic of the spiritual significance most of us attribute (on some level) to nature.

Don’t get me wrong! The bad, human-hating kind of environmentalism is condemned pretty clearly. (This is a big step for Miyazaki, who has not been so enlightened about this in the past.) Ponyo’s sea-wizard father not only hates humans, but actually dreams of one day wiping them out – because he hates their impact on the environment. Those who see the ecosystem as something with its own inherent integrity apart from humanity, such that any impact of humanity’s existence on the natural world is bad simply as such, are implicitly wishing for humanity’s annihiliation.

In fact, we learn at one point that the sea-wizard father was born human and has somehow himself crossed the very same border Ponyo wants to cross, only in the other direction. The desire of some humans to get into nature – which drives so much of what now passes for environmentalism – is really a desire to get out of humanity. As the wizard says, they need to abandon humanity to serve the earth.

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What do you know about humans? They treat your home the same way they treat their fithly black souls! I was human myself once. I had to leave all that behind to serve the earth.

But what if the shoe were on the other foot? What if we could “become one with nature” not by dragging humanity down, but by pulling nature up?

That’s the thought I couldn’t stop having as I watched the extended scene in which the rift opens between the human and magical worlds. The way Miyazaki does it, it’s breathtaking. Everyday things in our everyday world suddenly become magical. Not magical like wands and rings and such D&D fantasies – magic as a tool for humans to use – but magical with its own life and its own distinct nature. The road Ponyo’s mother drives down to get to work every day, with the forest on one side and the sea on the other, suddenly becomes bursting with little gods and goddesses all around them.

That’s what Ponyo’s desire to become human represents – against her father’s cold, self-loathing desire to have nature instead of humanity, her desire for love drives nature to come up alongside humanity, with its own personality, wanting to love us the way we love it. And on those terms we really can become one with nature.

Tree-huggers have got the wrong idea, because there’s nothing in a tree that can recieve a hug. There’s nobody else there, so you’re basically hugging yourself. But what if the trees hugged back?

We do – most of us, anyway – love nature and feel that somehow our relationship with it is disrupted and needs to be repaired or reestablished. There are, of course, some people for whom a forest is nothing but a source of lumber and a dog is nothing but an annoyance. But they’re pretty rare. Just to take one example, how many millions of people keep pets? How many millions more would like to keep them if not for the hassle, cost, allergies, etc.? And why do we want pets? There’s no explanation other than a desire to have some part of nature that is personal enough to have a relationship with. We want to love nature, so we seek out something in nature that can love us back.

And love, the movie very wisely percieves, is the unique quality of humanity which nature utterly lacks. Sheer force is something nature has in plenty, as we see when the flood destroys the town. Beauty nature has in spades. Even intellect is present in nature to some extent, as many animals are capable of some degree of calculation. We can, of course, out-calculate them. But what really makes humanity stand out next to mere nature – the smallest taste of which is enough to drive Ponyo to turn the whole world upside-down rather than go without it – is love.

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And let’s be clear that by “love” I’m not talking about mere gushy emotion or seniment. I mean a genuine desire for the good of others. In nature, mothers care for their young, and in one sense that’s love. But they only care for their young, not for others generally, and they do it in obedience to the maternal instinct. Doing good to another not because of any relationship we have with that other or to satisfy some instinct or desire of our own, but simply because we will the good of others – that’s something you’ll never find in nature. 

Or should I say, something you’ll never find in nature except where humanity has affected it. Try getting a wild dog to love you. But tame the dog and it will love you as well as any person – because in the taming, the influence of human love pulls it upward into a real (though of course limited) state of personhood.

Naturally, humans being only human, we are never perfectly selfless and all our behavior is mixed with some level of wrongful selfishness. That’s what gives the cynics, like the sea-wizard, their excuse for disbelieving in the reality of love. And of course in some particular cases the cynics turn out to be right – many behaviors that look like love from the outside really aren’t. That is Sosuke’s test – does he really want Ponyo to have what’s good for Ponyo simply because it’s good for Ponyo and he desires Ponyo’s good as such?

It’s not a perfect movie. Just like in Miyazaki’s last work, Howl’s Moving Castle, the ending of Ponyo is rushed and forced. Miyazaki has bittten off so much he can’t quite resolve it all in the time he has available. And, I regret to say, over the years I think he has become increasingly hesitant to let anybody’s story end sadly – not just the heroes but anybody at all. In his greatest work, Princess Mononoke, good triumphs in the end and utter destruction is averted, but many good things are lost and the hero and heroine must give up something they dearly love in order to save their respective peoples. Even in his earlier family movies, there was loss and regret. But more recently Miyazaki has tried to arrange for everybody to end up well, and that gives his endings a false note.

But, like I said, plot is not the reason to go see Ponyo, and thus I think the problems with the ending detract little from the movie. Even if you get nothing but the fun story and the amazing visuals, it’ll be well worth the price of admission. And I think there’s a lot more than that to be had.


Pass the Popcorn: We Fly With Our Spirits

July 17, 2009

Kiki & birds

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Last week, for our weekly dose of pop culture, Jay wrote about the rise of mopey, whiny self-pitying youth fiction, and offered some examples of where to look for something better.

Then, yesterday, I noticed the news that next month, after a four-year wait, U.S. audiences are finally going to get another Hayao Miyazaki movie. Ponyo opens Aug. 14. Last July it opened in Japan on 481 screens – a record for a domestic film – and had grossed $153 million by November.

Obviously the blog gods are demanding that I write about Miyazaki for this week’s Pass the Popcorn! Often called “the Japanese Walt Disney,” Miyazaki has produced a series of outstanding animated movies. One of the most amazing things about his work is its incredible range – from delightful family movies that kids and adults can enjoy together (hence the very apt comparison to Disney) to great epics about wars among gods and wizards, in which life ultimately triumphs over death, but not without paying a horrible price (definitely not Disney fare).

This week, continuing Jay’s theme, I’ll stick to the lighter stuff you can watch with your kids. Some other week I’ll write about the more grownup Miyazaki films.

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My Neighbor Totoro, one of his earlier films, is about two young girls who move into a new home and discover forest spirits living nearby. We gradually learn that the girls’ mother has some kind of serious ailment and lives in the hospital, and they get to see her very rarely; their adventures among the forest spirits are a substitute for the normal life they can’t have. Whether you think the spirits are real or imagined – I think the movie pretty clearly indicates that they’re meant to be real – doesn’t really alter the main point; we rely on fantasy to survive reality. (The setup mirrors Miyazaki’s own childhood; for eight years his mother was constantly in the hospital with TB and his family moved around a lot.)

Totoro’s greatest strength is its fantastically original visuals. In what has become the iconic image for fans of this movie, the girls are waiting in the pouring rain at a bus stop by a road that runs through the woods, and then unepectedly turn around and discover a forest spirit standing in the rain next to them – waiting for the forest spirit bus, which apparently uses the same stop as the human bus. Not knowing how to respond to each other, the girls and the spirit just awkwardly keep standing there, waiting for their respective busses.

When the spirit bus comes, in the form of a giant cat, they decide to get on that and see where it goes, rather than wait for the human bus and go where they’re supposed to. The bus bounds off through the forest, running on its cat-feet rather than riding on wheels.

Totoro bus

I’ve started with Totoro because it’s chronologically first (at least, of the Miyazaki films that have gotten wide exposure in the U.S.) and is also the most suitable for even very young children. However, it’s not the best stuff Miyazaki ever did, so unless you have younger kids whom you want to entertain I definitely don’t recommend making this your first Miyazaki movie.

The basic problem is the lack of a significant plot. The movie is really about a mood. For some people this just isn’t a issue; Totoro has a pretty significant fan base. For them, the magic and wonder, the astonishing visuals, and the poiniency of seeing the girls’ lives sliding slowly but surely into this alternate fairy-world in the absence of their mother are enough. But most viewers want a movie to go somewhere, and this one just doesn’t.

Sheeta & Pozu

By contrast, Castle in the Sky has plot coming out of its ears. It’s very much an old-fashioned kids’ adventure story. And like the best old-fashioned adventures – and unlike the insipid, watery gruel kids usually get nowadays – it’s packed with tons of nonstop story and amazing events, but it delivers this rollercoaster ride without ever devolving into mere brainless fighting and running around. At its heart, all the action and adventure are about two young people who have chosen to do their duty in the teeth of all opposition and in spite of hopeless odds, and end up loving every minute of it.

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It’s telling that we have a whole genre of movies called “action” movies. In all but a handful of them, plot and character – traditionally the two great rival suitors to our minds and hearts – are equally sacrificed into the maw of mere frenetic activity. By contrast, the mark of a good “action” story is that all the action is about something – even if it’s something simple, like a boy who’s determined to vindicate the good name of his dead father, and a girl who’s determined to keep a mysterious artifact she’s inherited out of the wrong hands.

Ornithopter battle

The flip side of that is that Castle in the Sky isn’t philosophically deep. I almost wrote that it isn’t about anything important, but that’s not true – a story about two bright, scrappy kids who move heaven and earth against impossible odds for no reason other than to do the right thing is about something very important! But it’s not philosophical or complex; there are no layers of deeper meaning to explicate, as there are in so many of Miyazaki’s other films.

But if you’re just looking for a great fantastic adventure that doesn’t fit the usual Hollywood mold, check this out.

Kiki

I saved the best for last! Kiki’s Delivery Service is a lot like the best Pixar movies – it’s formally a kids’ story, but it’s about something adults care very deeply about, so they can enjoy it just as well as the kids can, if not better.

Kiki is a 13-year-old girl who’s training to become a witch. Following ancient custom, she has to spend a year away from home, and the movie is about Kiki’s struggle to establish herself independently. Witches need to make a living, just like everybody else, and in the movie’s narrative world they support themselves by developing useful skills – potion-making, fortue-telling – and selling their services to customers. 

Kiki needs to develop a skill that she can use to support herself. But her mother (who has trained her to this point) is a little flaky, and hasn’t managed to teach her any useful skills. She can only do the two basic things that all witches can do – fly on her broomstick and talk to her black cat – neither of which seems to promise much hope for independence. And her initial experiences in the big city leave her feeling overwhelmed and discouraged.

Perhaps worse, she’s landed – so to speak – in a city where there are no witches and haven’t been for a long time, so she’s viewed as weird and alien by everyone around her. Required (again by ancient tradition) to wear a distinctive black dress, she sticks out like a sore thumb everywhere she goes. Walking alone down the street, she passes a gaggle of brightly dressed girls, briefly overhears their giggling and gossip, and then catches a glimpse of herself – darkly dressed and alone – reflected in a shop window.

Oh, and of course there’s boy trouble. She knows none of the “cool” boys will be interested in her, which is hard enough, but on top of that, she has managed to catch the attention of a geeky kid who’s fascinated with flying, and hence with her, but not so great at taking the hint that she doesn’t want him around.

Kiki & Tombo

Her only consolation is Jiji, her supportive but heavily sarcastic black cat – voiced, in a virtuoso comedic triumph, by Phil Hartman. This was one of the very last of his performances; the English-language version of the movie was released on May 23, 1998, five days before Hartman’s death.

Jiji & Lily

You will have surmised from the title that she takes the only talent life has given her and makes that her calling – being able to fly, she can offer the city’s fastest delivery service.

But that’s just the beginning of the story. Flying becomes a job, and it’s not fun anymore. So she can rely on her flying to become independent, but if she does so, flying can’t be what it used to be to her. Gaining her adult independence through flying means losing her childlike delight in flying – because taking childlike delight in something depends on doing it for its own sake.

And then she wakes up one day and discovers that for some mysterious reason, she’s lost her powers and can’t fly anymore. If she can’t figure out what’s wrong, she’ll have lost both the childlike delight and the adult independence that flying gave her – she’ll have lost everything.

She comes to realize that the problem is precisely that she’s been so anxious to become independent, to fit in and be a normal girl, and all the rest of it. By making these anxieties the center of her attention, she’s lost the love of flying that was powering her talent in the first place.

Kiki & Ursula

“When you fly, you rely on what’s inside you, right?”

“My mother says we fly with our spirits.”

Childhood isn’t enough, so we need to become self-reliant, but self-reliance isn’t enough, either. Self-reliance needs to serve a purpose beyond mere self-reliance, or it becomes devoid of meaning – and as a consequence, the talents that make us self-reliant become corrupt or impotent. The mere enchantment of childhood that naively enjoyed exercising a talent for its own sake can’t be sustained if that talent is going to be what you make your living at. But if you want to keep the talent healthy, you have to have some reason to do it besides merely making a living – as one of Kiki’s older and wiser friends puts it, “we each need to find our own inspiration.”

Kiki recovers her ability to fly when she discovers what flying is really for.

Don’t miss this gem of a movie.