Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 15, 2013

The Wind Rises; Wolf Children

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:25 pm

Over the years, my membership in NYFCO has introduced me to some truly great animated films, all of which I would regard as superior to the typically overpraised Hollywood blockbuster. Two of them were Brad Bird films: “The Iron Giant” and “Ratatouille”, films that respectively deal with a friendship between a young boy and a giant robot from outer space, and a French rat who aspires to be a gourmet chef. I also loved “How to Train Your Dragon” and “Toy Story 3”, films targeting a more youthful audience than Bird’s animated features. (Both are reviewed here.)

But towering over them is “Princess Mononoke”, a 1997 Japanese anime that was directed by Hayao Miyazaki whose swan song “The Wind Rises”, a biopic of the engineer responsible for the Zero fighter plane of WWII, was judged by NYFCO as best animated feature this year—the only choice that coincided with my own. While this film is directed mostly at adults, I can strongly recommend “Wolf Children”, another Japanese anime that came out in 2013 and that can be enjoyed by 8 year olds as well as 68 year olds like me. It is the story of a single mother raising a boy and a girl who are the result of her marriage to a werewolf, and totally irresistible.

To give you a sense of the artistic ambitions of “The Wind Rises”, there is a scene that takes place in a TB asylum just before WWII where the wife of engineer Jiro Horikoshi is convalescing. There he is introduced to a German anti-fascist named Castorp, an obvious reference to the main character in Thomas Mann’s “Magic Mountain”, an antiwar novel set in a TB hospital.

The film features two love affairs, one between Jiro Horikoshi and airplanes and the other with his wife Naoko. Like his subject, director Hayao Miyazaki has been obsessed with airplanes his entire life and has featured them prominently in many of his films.

Like a Rorschach test, the film has generated attacks from the right and the left. The right interprets it as “anti-Japanese” while the left sees it as a celebration of militarism. Writing for the LA Weekly, Inkoo Kang described it as a “shameful note” ending his career.

The Wind Rises perpetuates Japanese society’s deliberate misremembering and rewriting of history, which cast the former Empire of the Rising Sun as a victim of World War II, while glossing over — or in some cases completely ignoring — the mass death and suffering its military perpetrated. Critics who fail to observe or protest Miyazaki’s “pussyfooting” around a regime that caused more deaths than the Holocaust aid and abet Japan’s continued whitewashing of its war crimes.

Even in the unlikely event that “The Wind Rises” can be judged as a concession to Japanese militarism, it is a film that is like no other I have ever seen—animated or not animated. It is a tableaux of breathtakingly beautiful scenes of the Japanese countryside and fantastically reimagined WWI vintage airplanes that will remind you why all kids, including me, become obsessed with airplanes. Hayao Miyazaki was inspired to make this film by his subject’s statement that he only wanted to make something beautiful. The same words can be applied to this film.

As anybody with kids probably knows, monsters are the heroes or anti-heroes of many animated features nowadays. One of the bounty of animated film screeners I received for the NYFCO awards meeting, for example, was “Monsters University” that will be subcontracted out to Ivan Henwood for a review.

“Wolf Children” is the story of 19-year-old woman named Hana who runs into Ookami, a handsome young werewolf in his human guise at college, where he is sitting in at classes. They fall in love immediately and decide to get married, even though they understand that their children will be carrying the werewolf gene.

Japanese werewolves are totally unlike the Lon Chaney variety. They are not interested in dining on human flesh but mostly in returning to the wilderness as fully metamorphosed wolves after the fashion of Rousseau.

After Ookami dies in an accident out on a nightly back-to-nature excursion, Hana decides to raise her daughter Yuki and son Arne in the boondocks where they will be closer to nature. The film is filled with amusing and touching scenes where the two youngsters transform themselves into werewolves when they become overly excited in a sort of genteel version of “The Incredible Hulk”. The film is family entertainment in the best sense of the word.

Director Mamoru Hosoda studied oil painting at the Kanazawa College of Art and it shows. The film is a treat for the eyes and the heart—Japanese anime at its finest.

Before I sat down to write these reviews, I decided to add a few words about the importance of animated films, or what we called cartoons, to WWII baby boomers like me (technically speaking I am pre-boomer since I was born before the war ended.)

When I was 8 years old or so, I used to be glued to the television set on Saturday morning just like kids are today. The chief difference between then and now is the quality of the cartoons. Like everything else in capitalist America, from the tomato to the novel, the product has gone downhill.

In 1953, when I was 8, Warner Brothers cartoons were in their heyday. In fact, you would see a new Warner Brothers cartoon at the beginning of a feature film, just as you would see a newsreel and often a travelogue. Watching “Bugs Bunny” or “Sylvester and Tweetie Bird” was the first opportunity I had to appreciate what was essentially adult humor. When Bugs Bunny broke through the third wall and informed the movie audience what he thought about the cartoon, I got my first inkling about irony and the absurdist character of life.

The genius behind Warner Brothers cartoons (aka Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies) was one Tex Avery, who once stated “In a cartoon you can do anything”. The film “Roger Rabbit” paid homage to Tex Avery but nothing could possibly match the original.

Avery’s best-known artist was Chuck Jones, who was deeply embedded in the New Deal machinery during WWII. He worked closely with Theodore Geisel of Dr. Seuss fame to produce the “Private Snafu” cartoons from 1943 to 1945. These educational shorts meant to remind soldiers to take their malaria medicine, etc. Here’s one about the need to prevent spies from hearing about military secrets filled with racist images of the Japanese. The voice is obviously Mel Blanc’s.

Wikipedia also reports:

During World War II, Jones directed such shorts as The Weakly Reporter, a 1944 short that related to shortages and rationing on the home front. During the same year, he directed Hell-Bent for Election, a campaign film for Franklin D. Roosevelt. He also directed the less-widely known Angel Puss. This cartoon contains portrayals of African-Americans that are now considered offensive. It is no longer available in any authorized release and is among the group of controversial cartoons known to animation buffs as the Censored Eleven.

One can only conclude that the vast output of feature films and cartoons made during WWII and the post-war period by Americans will never be considered as concessions to militarism after the fashion of “The Wind Rises”, a film that never deserved to be viewed as such. That, of course, is a function of history being written by the victor rather than the loser. One day, the United States will get the proper drubbing it deserves. Then, and only then, will we be able to look forward to a popular culture that has truth on its side. At that time, artists should look to “A Wind Rises” as a model.

1 Comment »

  1. “Castles in the Sky” is a great early Miyasaki film from the mid-1980s. One of the main characters is a boy who lives in a mining village, and Miyasaki has said that the animated scenes of this village, and the people who reside there, were inspired by his experience observing mining communities strike against Thatcher a few years earlier.

    Comment by Richard Estes — December 16, 2013 @ 9:12 pm

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