By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 1, 2014)
Jiro dreams of Zeros: The Wind Rises
If I understand Hayao Miyazaki’s take on the life of Jiro Horikoshi correctly, he was sort of the Temple Grandin of Japanese aviation; a photo-realistic visual thinker who lived, breathed, and even dreamed about elegant aircraft designs from childhood onward.
The fact that his most famous creation, the Zero, became one of the most indelible icons of Japanese aggression during WW2 is incidental. As I was hitherto blissfully unaware of Horikoshi prior to viewing the venerable director’s new (and purportedly, final) anime, The Wind Rises, I’m giving Miyazaki-san benefit of the doubt; though I also must assume that Miyazaki’s beautifully woven cinematic tapestry involved…a bit of creative license?
Those who have followed Miyazaki’s work over the past several decades may be surprised (perhaps even mildly disappointed) to learn that the director’s swan song is a relatively straightforward biopic, containing virtually none of the fantasy elements that have become the director’s stock-in-trade. Still, he makes his fans feel at home right out of the starting gate with a dream sequence…about flying (a signature theme that recurs throughout Miyazaki’s oeuvre).
The young Jiro has nightly dreams about meeting his hero, the Italian aircraft designer Caproni, who gives him tours of fantastical flying machines that spark his imagination and creativity. Too nearsighted to become a pilot himself, Jiro finds solace in his natural gifts for engineering and design. As he follows Jiro into adulthood, Miyazaki gives us a crash course in Japanese history between the wars. Also along the way, Jiro meets the love of his life, a young woman named Nahoko.
Miyazaki largely maintains an apolitical tone (and leapfrogs over the war years to go straight to the denouement), although there is some implied conflict of conscience in a scene where Jiro laments how the military just wants to subvert the aesthetics of his elegant designs into weapons of destruction (I suppose you could argue that one can’t fault Einstein for coming up with an elegant equation that was subverted into a mushroom cloud of death).
At the end of the day, The Wind Rises is an old-fashioned love story and elegiac look at prewar Japan. And there is no denying the sheer artistry on display (a recreation of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 is the most epic and technically brilliant sequence I have ever seen in the realm of cel animation). Incidentally, Miyazaki has “retired” at least once before. I hope he doesn’t mean it…again.
Dedicated followers of fascists: Generation War
German filmmakers step into a PC minefield whenever they tackle a WW2 narrative from the perspective of German characters; it’s a classic “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” conundrum. If you present your protagonists in too much of a sympathetic light, you’re a revisionist, or (at worst) an apologist. If you go too much in the opposite direction, you’re feeding the stereotype that every German who was alive during Hitler’s regime was an evil Nazi. Okay, a lot of Germans were party members, and the Nazis were evil, but that’s beside the point. The politics of war are seldom black and white; there’s plenty of gray area for an astute dramatist to navigate.
The most well-known example of successfully navigating that gray area is Lewis Milestone’s 1930 WW1 drama, All Quiet on the Western Front, which follows a group of young Germans as they transform from fresh-faced, idealistic recruits into shell-shocked combat veterans with 1000-yard stares (well, those who survive). The humanistic approach gives the story a universal appeal; it’s a moot point that the protagonists happen to be “the enemy” (war is the great equalizer). While less-celebrated, I would rank Masaki Kobayashi’s 1959 epic The Human Condition as the greatest achievement in this arena (9 hours…but I’d still recommend it).
Falling somewhere in the middle (epic in length but somewhat tepid in narrative) is Generation War, a 5-hour German mini-series hit that has now been repackaged as a 2-part theatrical presentation. Directed by Philipp Kadelback and written by Stefan Kolditz, the film is sort of a German version of The Big Red One, with echoes of the Paul Verhoeven films Soldier of Orange and Black Book.
The film opens with five close friends enjoying a going-away party on the eve of Operation Barbarossa (which will change all their lives…forevah). Actually, only three of them are “going away”. Wilhelm (Volker Bruch), an officer in the Wehrmacht, and his younger brother Friedhelm (Tom Schilling) will be off to the Eastern Front, and Charlotte (Miriam Stein) hopes to lend her nursing skills to the Red Cross. Greta (Katherina Schuttler), an aspiring chanteuse and her verboten Jewish lover Viktor (Ludwig Trepte) will hold down the home front. After much drinking and dancing, there’s consensus that the war should wrap by Christmas.
Of course, the war doesn’t wrap up by Christmas (besides, as the audience, we’ve still got 4 ½ hours left on the meter at this point). Unfortunately, what ensues is more cliché than bullet-ridden, and the film itself becomes as much of an arduous slog as Wilhelm and Friedhelm’s 3-year trudge toward Moscow (with Wilhelm’s interstitial voice overs excerpting Deep Thoughts from his war journals to serve as the Greek Chorus). The five leads give it their best with commendable performances, but (with the exception of one or two scenes) are handed barely-above-soap opera level material to work with. Also, there is one too many “Of all the gin joints of all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine” moments.
To give credit where credit is due, there is one eminently quotable epiphany, via one of Wilhelm’s journal entries. It arrives too late in the film to fully redeem the lulls in the preceding several hours, but it bears repeating: “To start with, on the battlefield, you fight for your country. Later, when doubt sets in, you fight for your comrades…whom you can’t leave in the lurch. But when nobody else is left, when you’re alone, and the only one you can deceive is yourself? What do you fight for then?” Granted, that may just be a long-winded variation on “War isn’t about who is right, but who is left”…but as far as rhetorical questions go? It’s a doozy.