Written by: Jose Argumedo
It’s 3am. I just got home from a midnight screening after driving to the only theater in town that actually played the movie at midnight. I have so many thoughts racing in my head about this movie, and I’m trying to have them stay in one place so I can adequately discuss my feelings on the film.
The fact is this film is the most challenging thing I’ve seen this year. It’s a film that in reality shouldn’t work. A lesser filmmaker would have botched this or simplified it but Miyazaki is an inspired man. There’s been a lot talk about his retirement from feature films and if he’ll actually stay retired this time. Honestly, I think he means it this time. I think he got what he wanted to say off his chest.
First thing’s first. The elephant in the room, Jiro Horikoshi. In case you don’t know who that is, he’s our main character in the film who also happens to be a real person. Jiro was an airplane designer in the 1930’s and 40’s who designed the Zero Fighter for the Japanese army. That plane went on to fight in World War 2, infamously carrying out attacks on Pearl Harbor, as well as many other dogfights that killed many Americans (not to mention the Chinese). I can see why Disney put this out under their TouchStone banner.
The thing we also have to understand about this Jiro in the film is that he is a idealized and romanticized version of him. There’s a lot of fiction in the film, and should not be taken to be an auto-biographical film. I think the film makes that pretty clear without ever needing to know that as there are a lot of fantasy elements in the film. There’s also a dedication to Jiro and Tatsuo Hori, who wrote a fictional novel that Miyazaki takes certain elements from. He combines these two things together to make a film that I’ve never really seen attempted in animation before.
Miyazaki’s film are typically meant for families and people of all ages. This is not one of them. This film is really adult, not in it’s language, or it’s imagery (though there are some images that might be too intense for kids) but it’s themes. The theme of having the opportunity to create something, but having that creation used by others to hurt people. Do you stick to your convictions and stand idly by while you can’t create anything, or do you sell out to make what you want and not care who it hurts? This is basically the central theme of the film and it’s a complex one.
Jiro is so obsessed with creating something beautiful that he puts things aside to make them reality, even other people. Part of me thinks that Miyazaki is also trying to make people understand how creating art is like when it’s your job. It’s this high-wire balancing act that Miyazaki walks while we watch Japan evolve from this hick-backwards country to surpassing the world (in terms of technology and ingenuity).
This film made me think and broke my heart at the same time. Watching Jiro struggle to create something, and then to finally be proud of it when it surpasses what the army wanted is wonderful and joyous until you’re reminded that the next plane would go on and kill thousands, and not a single plane would return. There’s also a relationship established with a fictional woman, and the romance between the two is done really well. There are definite struggles that Jiro and Naoko must go through as well, and it parallels his work on the plane. Watching him try to balance that is something so simple to relate to, yet so incredibly powerful and well done.
Briefly touching on the dub by Gary Rydstorm, the cast is actually a little bit of mixed bag. The script is great and very inspired. Multiple languages are spoken in the dub and they all sound authentic. Joseph Gordon Levitt does an admirable if slightly underwhelming job as Jiro. The performance comes off as a little clumsy in places, but for the most part he does a damn good job of playing Jiro as this genius with his head in the clouds. John Krasinski as Honjo steals the show anytime he’s onscreen. Really makes me wish he was in more voice acting roles because he nailed every scene he was in. Emily Blunt as Naoko does a good job, and she’s believable when she falls in love with Joseph Gordon Levitt’s character. Oh and Michelle Ruff’s in the cast. See if you spot her (because I sure couldn’t but her name is in the credits).
I have to say, I think this is my favorite film that Miyazaki has made. It’s clearly something very personal and complex. I will completely understand if people are conflicted by the film’s subject matter but I think that’s part of the point.