Friday, February 28, 2014

Film: Engineering Project

The Wind Rises written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki.

I have an off-again, on-again relationship with Japanese animation. As a child, I was not exposed to Macross or Star Blazers, but I got more than a double dose of Kimba, the White Lion through Paul Shannon's Adventure Time. In college I remained immune to the rising force of manga, though I read all of the english translations of Akira. I have good friends who are anime fans and work on translations, and through those I get a semi-regular dose of animation on the small screen, but it has been years since I have been in a theater for the medium (Akira again, at the Oriental Theater in Milwaukee).

But last night was an excellent occasion to renew the habit. The Wind Rises is reported to be the last film of writer and director Hayao Miyazaki, who has built up the powerful Studio Ghibli over the years. And it is a retrospective, not of his life life, but rather a fictionalized account of Jiro Horikoshi, who designed the Mitsubishi Zero fighter plane. And it is magical fictionalization, grounded in the reality of the modernizing Japan of the Showa period, but taken leaps of dreams and imagination.

Jiro Dreams of Biplanes
We meet Jiro as a boy, nearsighted but dreaming of flight. In his dreams, he is met by the Italian aircraft designer Giovanni Battista Caproni, who becomes his spirit animal, guiding and exhorting him to pursue his dream. We follow the youth through school (and the Great Tokyo Earthquake), to his job at Mitsubishi (and the collapse of the banks) to visiting Germany (and the rising militarism of the '30s). And his desire for flight is matched in description of both the rising Japanese desire for modernity and the relentless technological advancement created by war. He meets and re-meets his bride, perfects his aircraft, and suffers the loss both personal and national.

And through it all Hayao's dream supports him. He is the portrayed against a backdrop of glum, if not grim, fellow Japanese. No one else is smiling, yet he is amused, buoyed by his dreams. He performs small acts of heroism, but for the most part dodges the worst of his world. The other major characters have their ups and downs, their rages and tears, but Jiro remains a calm island. The exception to the glum companions comes late in the film, where he lectures a group of younger engineers, and there we see the laughter and wonder of others sharing the same mission.

Miyazaki gets engineering right in presenting it as a form of creativity. As a former civil engineer, I do not dream of flying (well, I rarely do), but I do dream in maps, in floor plans. Within my topological dreams I know exactly my location, even when the ground shifts. I assume this to be natural, but it seems to be the way I order my mind. I look at buildings and see lines of force and stress. And even with my shift into fiction and games, I still see that structure within words and paragraphs. It is a clockwork as beautiful as a biplane's fabric wings. So yeah, Miyazaki unites both the soft nature of creativity and the hard universe of numbers. Jiro's winged dreams match up with Miyazaki's own celulloid achievements. It is autobiography by transposition.

But I disagree with the hand-wave given to the results of Jiro's work. Caproni, his spirit guide, writes off the military nature of his creations as a thing that gives him the ability to create beautiful planes. And Jiro is of similar mind, even though Miyazaki has to admit the darkness at the heart of Jiro's beautiful creations. The darkness remains at the perimeter, haunting always.

Should this be Miyazaki's last work, it seems to pack the feel of autobiography. I don't know the director's backstory, but it feels like pointing out the unification of imagination and technology matches up well in the area of movie making, another dimension of flight and dreams. It is a long film, alien in many ways to Western sensibilities (indeed, the fascination with steam engines as an analogy of development of Japan approaches the fetishistic, and is probably will be the source of many college papers). The rhythms of the movie are not those of Western film, with its quiet bits, the way it draws attention, and subtlety of the players all mixing into a core experience. If you get the chance to see it on the big screen, do it.

More later,