Tropic Sprockets / The Wind Rises




The Maestro of Manga, Hiyao Miyazaki gives us another bunch of cinematic chrysanthemums with “The Wind Rises”. This animated film is loosely based on the life of Jiro Horikoshi, creator of the Japanese Zero fighter planes.

The film was nominated for an Oscar this year and was last year’s runaway hit in Japan. In the American version, Joseph Gordon-Levitt voices Jiro and seems a forthright and empathic Johnny Depp persona. In a 1920s Japan, Jiro is an idealistic boy with his head in the clouds, or more specifically, planes. His proud country wants to become more mechanized and current with an aerial army, but Jiro only has eyes for speed and space and vivid flying machines (resembling The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine”) that bring joy to others.

In such vignettes, Jiro takes on the persona of Speed Racer, John Lennon, or a Harry Potter with round and curious lenses. Suddenly there is an earthquake in Jiro’s hometown and his equilibrium is thrown asunder. He notices a maid and a young girl (who may recall Daisy from The Great Gatsby). He helps the two to safety, putting himself at risk. He becomes their knight, but when they turn to thank him, Jiro disapears.

Jiro goes to the university to study engineering, ultimately joining a design team sponsored by the Navy. After a string of failures, he visits Germany and is spooked by the secret police—precursors to The Gestapo. Jiro continuously tries to ignore the fact that he is designing fighters for the gathering war effort—deadly chrome wasps that will ultimately launch kamikazes into Pearl Harbor and WWII. Jiro appears to have an emotional circuit breaker that leaves him either sweaty with panic or as blissful as a newly bloomed sun orchid.

At times the dapper and welcoming inventor Caproni appears to him in the style of an animation by Peter Max or he witnesses horrible scenes of ash, fire and destruction in keeping with Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”. Jiro emerges as a visionary, similar to Edgar Cayce, or a Tibetan Buddhist. He listens to his dreams. The animation is sweeping and vividly stirring, full of motion and loose gesture. While the facial renderings echo Tatsuo Yoshida’s “Speed Racer,” the landscapes speak of a fluidity seen in a Cezanne forest masterwork.

By midway, there is a slight bit of wind shear and drift in “The Wind Rises,” as it runs just a bit long with our Italophile dreamer running and fretting hither and thither among the cumulous clouds with paper airplanes, but this is merely a small fissure in what remains as a painting spinning in its own momentum. There are some daring touches such as the inclusion of Martin Short as a domineering boss, not to mention famed director Werner Herzog as Castorp, a convalescing man with secrets who dines on heaps of watercress in “a good place to forget bad things.” This passage makes an excellent tribute to Thomas Mann in animated form. And, as if this isn’t enough, this is probably the one film where Herzog actually smiles, while still retaining his trademarked existential and comic cadence.

In “The Wind Rises” Miyazaki has made Jiro Horikoshi into an Emersonian genius who cares only for a bouyant aircraft in harmony with nature and its people. Instead of bombs, Jiro’s inventions drop hearts of origami, white-throated, folded missives to his lost love. This is not to say that the director pulls his punches; Jiro can also be seen as an airy Michelangelo, held aloft by the popes of The Rising Sun in the rush to war. Whatever the case,

Jiro is a man we can all imagine who truly transcends his animated form and becomes flesh. Hiyao Miyazaki, whose father crafted the rudder for A6M Zeros might well be exorcising some personal yurei (ghosts) here, and has gracefully given a thoughtful and meditative story to match his whimsical vision.  

Monuments Men

George Clooney (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) directs and stars in “Monuments Men” a tepid rendering of Robert M. Edsel’s provocative book about the brave repossession of many prized works of art stolen by The Nazis during WWII. Clooney is Frank Stokes in charge of gathering six men to recover the priceless works from the SS.

He is properly mustached, tan, square jawed and resolute, but the acting is heavy handed and a bit sentimental in such a way that we don’t really get a sense that Stokes cares in a meaningful or authentic way about his quest to locate the imperiled art. Frank gives a grand speech about the rescue of art, culture and free expression. While this is a very important and worthwhile message, not to mention the inclusive novel story of art historians who treat art as POWs, and rightly so, it is done with such broad strokes in the manner of a primer that it lacks substance and has little nourishment.

Matt Damon is here in his handsome U.S. Army glory as Lt. James Granger, as is a nearly expressionless Bill Murray and a puffy and cumulous-like John Goodman. Damon, Goodman and Murray seem interchangeable. None of them emote much feeling or dialogue. Murray’s character breaks down in the shower hearing a Christmas Carol, but rather than displaying any uniqueness, his tears feel strangely remote.

Cate Blanchett and Jean Dujardin duly appear but they are drawn with flat brushes as an austere, heavily accented spy and a heavily accented and sugary sounding Frenchman, respectively. The cinematography—a welcome contrast—is crisp and stirring with an ease of motion, elegant and swift. We are in France, Germany and Belgium all in the blink of an eye and we are carried along, mentally if not emotionally.

The film does have an oddly quaint nostalgic quality and this could be appealing. The Men stalk and stub their toes. They scramble about in olive green and smoking jeeps that resemble worn but cute tortoises of war, echoing those grand old films starring the likes of Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine.

If Clooney had gone all the way, this film could have been a rollicking, fun and poignant ride. But as it is modeled here, the events appear a bit too staged and removed. Case and point is Hitler himself as a mere mannequin staring at his Plaster of Paris Orwellian vision. There just isn’t much for these rambling and rumbling men to do. This is not to say that recovering art must be exciting or worthy of a cliffhanger but I bet it could have been.

The only comic relief we get is of Murray getting a tooth pulled and this wears thin. Such a vignette plays like a WC Fields sketch sans zingers. That said, there is a bit of meaningful thought and pathos in a confession by Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville) that is evocative, while Joel Basman playing a German officer is someone as shark-eyed and sinister as you’ll ever see.

And, in terms of kitsch and camp, it is enjoyable to see Clooney’s real life father, Nick, gentle and white haired in the role of Stokes as an old man. Overall though, with such striking visuals in portraying a Madonna by Michelangelo as a person of spirit and flesh, it is an anticlimax that the only “Monuments Men” to be found are these uniform and granite-faced characters outfitted in lethargic acting.

Write Ian at

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