Knowing Better: Thoughts After The Wind Rises

Last night, I saw The Wind Rises.  My immediate thoughts upon walking out of the cinema were “that film was extremely beautiful, but I would have done so many things differently had I written and directed it.”  Now, I am not a director, nor have I ever written a feature-length screenplay (despite my best efforts), and I started to think about what gives me the right, as a fan of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, to argue that I could have done a better job.  These are just a few of the complicated thoughts I have about this movie.

The Wind Rises is supposedly Hayao Miyazaki’s final film before retirement.  Being a devoted fan of the works of Studio Ghibil, especially those written and directed by Miyazaki, the fact that we may never get another film by one of the greatest living animators fills me with sadness.  This sadness is compounded by the fact that The Wind Rises has received criticism concerning its presentation of imperialist, World War II-era Japan.  In telling a fictionalized version of the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the man who designed the Mitsubishi A5M and A6M Zero fighter planes, Miyazaki addresses without engaging multiple moral quandaries about war, fascism, and dedication.  For me to supply my own analysis of the film’s controversial choices would be to add little to a subject that has already been extensively analyzed.  (For a great, in-depth analysis of the film’s problematic nature, allow me to direct you to Tasha Robinson’s film review at The Dissolve.)

Instead, I will address how the film’s strange refusal to fully engage with certain ideas leaves me conflicted about my role as a fan of Miyazaki’s works.In The Wind Rises, we watch as Jiro follows his dream of becoming an aeronautical engineer.  As a young boy, he was captivated by flight, so much so that he would read English-language aviation magazines, with the aid of an English-to-Japanese dictionary, to learn everything he could about the science of heavier-than-air flight.  He idolizes Count Caproni, an aeronautical engineer from Italy (another future member of the Axis Powers), and comes to see “beautiful airplanes” as a wonderful dream.  As an adult, he is hired by Mitsubishi to design planes for military use.  Throughout the film, Jiro laments that the military will use his planes as tools of war when, ideally, airplanes should be made to allow man to experience the joy and exhilaration of flight for the sake of the joy and exhilaration.  But, even as the film repeatedly shows the governments of Germany and Japan as increasingly fascist, as it repeatedly foreshadows the impending destruction of war, Jiro never gives up on his dream of designing “beautiful airplanes.”  The film admits knows that they will be used as fighters.  The film ends by reminding us that the planes caused death and destruction.  (Although, the destruction element is much more emphasized; a shot of a graveyard of destroyed Zeroes causes Jiro to lament that none of his masterpieces ever returned, almost arguing that the loss of art was a greater tragedy than the loss of life.)  The film does not address that, allegedly,* many of the laborers who constructed planes based on Jiro’s designs were enslaved KoreansMiyazaki wanted to tell the story of a man who wanted to make something beautiful.  To me, he told the story of a man who was so devoted to his dreams that he was willing to pursue them, even though he knew that they would be paid for with blood.

And so, when I walked out of the cinema, I thought that Miyazaki should have made that the focus.  To question whether our dreams are worth pursuing when we know that others will pay a high price for them is a very potent, very tragic idea.  As told by Miyazaki, Jiro Horikoshi had the misfortune of living in an era when the only way he could pursue his dreams would be to sell out his principles.  How do you make such a choice?  Do you give up on your dreams, the desires that have motivated you since childhood?  If you do choose to abandon your dreams in favor of your principles, won’t somebody else just step in and provide the military with planes, thus making your sacrifice futile?  But is the “someone’s going to do it anyway” truly a valid argument for violating your beliefs?  And if you do decide to knowingly make war machines, can you live with the blood on your hands?  These ideas are very superficially addressed in the film.  Jiro and Caproni discuss their disappointment that their work will be corrupted by the military, but neither ever consider refusing to design planes for the military or finding other ways - assuming there are other ways, as there might not have been any entity powerful and rich enough to bankroll airplane design - to realize their dreams.

I kept waiting for the film to force Jiro to address this conflict.  There is even a scene between Jiro and a German critical of Hitler in which the two men discuss that the militarism both countries are expressing will ultimately doom them.  (Consequently, this was one of my favorite scenes in the film.)  Instead, Jiro remains rather passive.  Conflict happens, but he largely side-steps it.  When the Japanese government starts investigating him, he never considers leaving his job in which he works on government contracts.  Most of the shown-not-told inner conflict comes from Jiro’s love of a tuberculosis-stricken woman.  As a result, I could never get fully invested in the movie.  In addition to the film’s more objective storytelling problems (slow pace, problems creating relevant conflict), it never became what I wanted it to become.  Which raises the question: who am I to demand that Miyazaki’s film be what I want it to be?

I’m certain that fan fiction has existed long before the internet, but easy access to self-publishing options and free libraries has made fan fiction almost mainstream.  Online forums allow fans from all over the world to pick apart their favorite films, books, and TV shows, analyzing themes and predicting the direction of ongoing series.  The internet is an amplifier for opinions, and it’s inevitable that people will voice their thoughts about where a story should have gone or whether they thought an author made a mistake.  People are entitled to these opinions.  My question is whether they justify not fully engaging with a work when the author goes against what the fan wants.

A few weeks ago, a friend posted this blog post, which argues that the nature of fandom is loving a work so much and being so familiar with the characters and world that the fans know better than the author.**  Needless to say, both he and I disagreed with that conclusion.  The blogger seems to miss the point of what it means to be a fan; if you know better than the author of what you are a fan of, why are you a fan?  The characters and world you love sprung from the author, and even if you disagree with the direction in which the author is going, the author is not “destroying” your characters or your world.  The love fans feel for a work originated with the author; the author did something to make the fan appreciate something about the work, and a fan can become upset with later choices made by the author, but to argue that the fan knows better than the author is to forget where your adoration came from.  An author may make a silly choice or write a story in a way that upsets you, but it was the author’s choice to make.  An author may listen to criticism (see: the fates of Nikki and Paulo on LOST) or an author may not.  That is the choice s/he is entitled to in his/her role as author.  We as fans do not have to enjoy every part of an author’s story, but it is ultimately futile to say we know better than the author, because the work that exists is the work that exists.  For all the fan fic written, the author’s vision will always be there and will be the basis for the fandom.***  (Except in the case of Friday Night Lights, wherein the second season, despite still existing, was pretty much unwritten in later seasons.)

Keeping this in mind, where do my thoughts about The Wind Rises fit in to this viewpoint?  I have the right to think what I do about the film, but is doing so useless?  The Wind Rises will always be what it is.  It will always be Miyazaki’s vision, which is that of the story of a man who wanted to create something beautiful.  I can criticize it.  I can choose to write a story about the struggle between following your dreams when you know doing so will have adverse consequences on others.  I know that the film is astoundingly beautiful and has many positive elements.  But is the fact that it isn’t what I want it to be a justifiable reason for not being able to engage with it the way I do for Miyazaki’s other films?  Ultimately, I believe that this can be a constructive lesson.  If nothing else, The Wind Rises has given me inspiration to tell the story I want to tell using my own world and characters.  The Wind Rises will never be my favorite Ghibli film, and, while I am happy that I saw it, I may never need to see it again.  But I can be thankful that, in telling his story, Hayao Miyazaki has inspired me to tell the story I want to see.  Art should inspire, and, in its own way, The Wind Rises has succeeded in doing so.  I won’t pretend to think I know better than Hayao Miyazaki, but his art has raised questions to me that I would like to see pursued.  And that, to me, is why I am a great admirer of Miyazaki; even when he creates something that I find lacking, he still succeeds in inspiring me.  Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro engage my imagination.  The Wind Rises engaged my desire to tell stories.

*I say “allegedly” because I cannot confirm this to be true, but, based on the documented treatment of other Asian nations and POWs during World War II, I am willing to include this assertion in my analysis.  If anyone can point to a source to confirm this point, please forward it.

**This article is not from a “professional” writer, so one might think that we can simply discount it.  But the idea presented by it did not come solely from the author, but is the result of a collective attitude.  It is also of such an extreme view that I find it worth addressing, even if it is a fringe view.

***This is not to say that fan fic has no place.  Leigh Lahav presented a very positive view of what fan fic can do and what its “purpose” is.

TeeFury features a Totoro design today.

TeeFury features a Totoro design today.

North American trailer for The Wind Rises

A Spirited Away shirt today on TeeFury

A Spirited Away shirt today on TeeFury

The Legend of Korra Book 2, Episodes 7 and 8: Beginnings, Part 1 and 2

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Now that’s more like it.  “Beginnings, Parts 1 and 2” are far and away the best episodes of Book 2, which is a bit disconcerting because they are such a departure from a typical Korra episode.  The only regular character who appears is Korra, and she has 5 minutes of screentime, tops.  Instead, the episodes focuses on Wan, the man who would become the first Avatar.  His story, which is told in an animation style that evokes old Japanese woodblock prints, shows how people became benders, how one person discovered how to control all four elements, and recontextualizes Unalaq’s mission.  Until now, Unalaq could be perceived as a man with a noble goal, but using questionable means to achieve it.  Now, if he’s not an outright villain, he’s at best sorely misguided.

Wan’s story is another tale that uses the Avatar universe’s theme of balance, this time examining a city plagued by poverty and income inequality, as well as an eternal battle between a spirit of lightness and a spirit of darkness.  Wan comes from a city where power and wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small number, leading Wan and his friends, who do not have money or power, to first rebel then leave to set up a new society.  But conflict follows them because their new home encroaches on the home of the spirits, and each side, instead of working towards a harmonious existence, each group tries to conquer the other.  The spirit battle, between Rava the Light Spirit and Vaatu the Dark Spirit, also serves as a reminder that we lack perfect information, and sometimes, when we think we are helping, we are actually making things worse.

Through Wan’s journey, he learns that everything is connected, and that which affects part of the world affects all of the world.  (Think back to The Wire, and how the trouble at the docks had ripples in the drug world because heroin came into Baltimore through the docks.)  In the process, he revolutionizes bending, changing it from a crude tool into a refined art, and melds his soul with Rava, creating the Avatar line.  And through this story, Korra learns the importance of being in touch with her spiritual side, and hopefully that she must look beyond her own perspective and think about the whole world, rather than just her own desires.

After being very worried about the “Korra has amnesia” plot that ended “The Sting,” the series has already resolved it, and I couldn’t be happier about that.  Korra is back to herself, only now with a greater understanding of her role in the world.  I’m hesitant to say that this development makes her behavior this season “worth it,” especially because we all knew that the season was building toward this kind of revelation, but this new perspective is all the more refreshing after seeing how myopic Korra had become.  Now, hopefully the rest of the season will get back on track.

Random Thoughts

  • Wan learned the 4 elements in the order of the Avatar Cycle: Fire – Air – Water – Earth.
  • Lots of references to Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke this week.  I approve.
  • We saw a dragon (which looked like Haku from Spirited Away) do the Dancing Dragon form with Wan, but what about badger moles, the moon, and sky bison and their roles in teaching bending?
  • It’s nice to see that the Fire Nation has settled down after the 100 Years War.
  • When Wan and Rava entered the spirit portal at the South Pole to attend the harmonic convergence, Vaatu entered the other portal, which must be the one at the North Pole.  Is South inherently related to light and North inherently related to dark, or were the portal choices arbitrary?
  • I kind of hope this season ends with Vaatu melding with a human to create a Dark Avatar line.  Not sure what the Dark Avatar will do, but it could be a cool setup for Book 3.

The Legend of Korra Book 2, Episodes 1 and 2: Rebel Spirit; The Southern Lights

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After over a year off the air, The Legend of Korra returns, and it looks even more beautiful than ever.  I honestly don’t know what this production team is doing that others aren’t (is it a money issue?), but the visuals are comprised of some of the most incredible animation I’ve ever seen.  But how are the episodes themselves?  Well, the answer is complicated.

Last year, I talked about how the fact that Korra went from being a stand-alone miniseries into a continuing series after all 12 episodes had been produced had an effect on how I viewed the ending.  “Endgame” effectively wrapped up all of the major plotlines and concluded the various character arcs.  As to be expected, this created problems going in to Book Two.  Although there are certainly new stories to tell, the characters’ stories seemed to be completed.  Korra went from being a brash, headstrong girl to a woman who understands that there are methods of conflict resolution other than violence or a direct approach.  Tenzin and Korra were able to learn how best to approach the other, and developed a strong bond of trust and respect.  Mako… um, Mako dumped Asami after learning he was supposed to be with the show’s protagonist?  The less said about that arc the better.  So now in Book Two, subtitled “Spirits,” while there are plenty of stories about Republic City and the world as a whole that can be told (for example, Amon may have been insane, but there was a germ of a righteous idea in equalism), where do the characters go next?  Unfortunately, it looks like they regress a bit.

Granted, character development requires writers to walk a fine line.  We want characters to learn and grow, but they must remain true to who they are.  Zuko changed tremendously over the course of the three seasons of Avatar: The Last Airbender, but he was still Zuko at heart.  Even though his allegiance changed, he was still dour and humorless, still mission-focused and a believer of direct action.  Korra remains impulsive and prone to jumping in to situations without weighing all the options or learning all the facts.  She is still very much the Korra we know and love, but is this at the expense of what she learned at the end of Book One?  On one hand, it makes a kind of sense that she would regress a bit after defeating Amon; she focuses on the fact that she defeated a major threat to Republic City, choosing to remember herself as a grand victor over evil.  She conveniently forgets that she just barely won, and that, before she did, Amon succeeded in removing her bending ability.  On the other hand, her relationship with Tenzin has greatly deteriorated.  All of the mutual respect the two had for each other seems to have evaporated, and they are back to where they were at the beginning of the series.  Seeing the two of them snipe at each other made Korra’s decision to abandon Tenzin’s teachings and join with her uncle Unalaq an inevitability rather than the emotional gut punch the writers were going for.

A lot of the emotion in these two episodes didn’t quite work.  When Korra’s father Tonraq told the story of why he was banished from the Northern Water Tribe, James Remar’s line reading made it seem like Tonraq’s attitude toward the whole ordeal was annoyance rather than shame or sorrow.  And Korra spends much of these two episodes upset with Mako for silly reasons, and is starting to come off as the stereotypical “shrill girlfriend.”  This is upsetting for many reasons, chief among them that Korra had been portrayed so well in the first season and that there are so many ways to portray conflict in relationships without having to rely on such a clichéd trope.  Korra is not the only person at fault though; Mako is a pretty crappy boyfriend, thinking that “supporting her” equates to telling her exactly what she wants to hear.  To the extent that animated characters can have chemistry, these two have very little, and thus, the romance plot remains the weakest part of the show.

However, there is still plenty of story that can make good use of Korra’s character as we know it, and the reintroduction of the Spirit World is the next logical step in her journey.  Although Korra did learn and grow, she still has many challenges to conquer, and not having dealt with the spirits in Book One, they will present a new challenge to her.  Beyond that, it stands to reason that, when confronted with a new challenge, Korra will revert back to what she’s used to when solving problems: direct violence.  The use of the Spirit World as her next challenge provides a good reason why Korra seems to have regressed (once we get to the introduction of the spirits, that is).  She’s still shaky with her spiritual side, and when panicked, she relies on what she knows.  Unfortunately, physical violence won’t work on immaterial spirits.  Whereas Amon represented her opposite in an ideological sense, the spirits represent her opposite in a material sense.  Her go-to form of problem-solving will have no effect on them, and she will have to learn how to get in touch with her spiritual side.  And that road will certainly be bumpy.

She assumes that Unalaq is going to teach her how to fight spirits.  She can’t comprehend that the proper course of action is to work with them and help them achieve balance.  Furthermore, she is quick to accept Unalaq’s offer to teach her because he reminds her that one of the Avatar’s roles is to be a bridge between the Spirit World and the physical world.  Because Korra ties her identity to her Avatar-ness, she believes that if the Avatar is supposed to do something, then she has no choice but to do it.  Korra complains about her lack of freedom but cannot see that she denies herself free will by believing that her role as the Avatar defines who she is.  Beyond that, she also gravitates towards Unalaq because he proves himself adept at something she isn’t yet: working with the spirits.  He proves to her that he has a power she doesn’t, and power is something Korra seeks, something she respects.  Korra wants to be the best right now.  When Tenzin’s methods of teaching prove ineffective or too slow, she dumps him for someone she believes can help her improve right away.

I am quite happy that The Legend of Korra is back, and overall, I enjoyed these two episodes.  There is a lot of potential for greatness this year.  But if I’m being completely honest, I’d be lying if I said that there weren’t a few red flags as well.  Like I said, it’s a tricky balance.  Korra will always be flawed, like all people.  But she also has to learn from her flaws.  Things become problematic when she starts making the same exact mistakes she made last year.  Korra is arrogant and headstrong, but she is not stupid.

Random Thoughts

  • Katara doesn’t care for Kya and Bumi’s treatment of Tenzin.  I know it’s fun to mess with people who are uptight (or so I’m told, as I’m usually on the receiving end of the messing), but Kya and Bumi don’t seem to understand the burden that Tenzin has, what with being one of the last airbenders.
  • Why are Tonraq and Unalaq spelled with q’s instead of k’s?  Most Water Tribe names have k’s in them (with a few exceptions).
  • What was up with that Varrick dude?  He’s going to factor into Asami’s story, as she seems to believe that he can help Future Industries climb out of the hole it’s been in since Hiroshi’s Equalist activities were revealed, but he seems to be nothing be eccentricity.
  • I greatly approve of the Princess Mononoke vibes these episodes give off.
  • Unalaq promises to teach Korra, then tells her to do what she thinks is right.  She is not at all worried by the prospect of entering into a situation having no idea how to approach it.  This is evidence of the bad kind of character regression (i.e., the writers ignoring her growth, rather than her fear and uncertainty causing her to fall back into old patterns).
  • The reveal about Korra’s father creates similarities between Korra and Tarrlok.  Both had fathers who had to forge new identities after causing great harm.  Also, Korra’s family has a similarity to Zuko’s family in that the younger brother (Unalaq) ascended to the leadership position, rather than the initial heir.
  • More Aubrey Plaza please.
doodleigh:

Commissioned mononoke hime 

MINE!

doodleigh:

Commissioned mononoke hime 

MINE!

English subtitled trailer for The Wind Rises, the latest film from Hayao Miyazaki.


Kiki’s Delivery Service, Juliette Laurent

Kiki’s Delivery Service, Juliette Laurent

Today’s shirt at TeeFury.com celebrates the works of Hayao Miyazaki.

Today’s shirt at TeeFury.com celebrates the works of Hayao Miyazaki.

verdigrisandgrame:

nokkasili:

I watched Mononoke hime again

May I please have this in poster size?

verdigrisandgrame:

nokkasili:

I watched Mononoke hime again

May I please have this in poster size?

Trailer for Book 2 of The Legend of Korra.

It looks like there are a lot of Princess Mononoke references.  I approve.

1920s Disney-style Totoro is unsettling.
Available today at TeeFury.com.

1920s Disney-style Totoro is unsettling.
Available today at TeeFury.com.