Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Berserk: The Golden Age Arc I - The Egg of the King - Give Blood. Lots of It.

Apologies for the delays on write-ups. The situation in a nutshell is that my laptop decided sometime last week that this would be a good time to try and fit its whole figurative fist in its mouth. Which was a cool trick at first...then it couldn't get it out again.

So, after three years of mostly loyal service, I'm in the process of hunting down a replacement. I'm working off an interim computer in the meantime, which brings us to this writeup.

In the few weeks of technological knockout, I've been getting reacquainted with a series. It's a fairly popular ongoing fantasy series known for its parallels to real medieval history, an alarmingly high mortality rate among its cast, and concerns within its fanbase over the idea that the author may be dead before he gets around to bringing it all to an end.

...okay, yes, that IS Game of Thrones, but that's not what I'm referring to. At least that has a contingency plan should something happen to Martin.

It also waited a little while before easing into the more brutal on-screen murder, but that's a discussion for another time.

Berserk has been my go to answer to people saying A Song of Ice and Fire has been taking too long. Besides the now public knowledge contingency plan, we know Martin at least has a project ending in sight, and compared to other titles, has been making good time meeting it. By comparison, Berserk has been running for longer (preceding ASoIaF by six years), is meted out in much smaller increments, and has been taking its time to such an extent that it's become a punchline within the fandom.

Despite that, the story is still generally pretty good. In particular it's done well enough to inspire now two animated adaptations. The first was a TV series that ran in the late 90s, and was later released in the US to become quite the hit here. The second is a much more recent trilogy of films meant to kick-start a revival to adapt the full manga.

Which brings us to now.

The Egg of the King is the first of three films that are designed to adapt the 'Golden Age' arc of the Berserk manga. This storyline, while not the first featured in print, is ultimately the backstory that establishes everything (and, to be fair, they can always recap the 'Black Swordsman' and 'Guardians of Desire' arcs in a single movie after this should they feel so inclined.) Telling a story in prolonged flashback, it introduces us to protagonist Guts (Hiroaki Iwanaga,) a swordsman born of a cursed fate who has been living day to day as a mercenary. After proving himself at a fateful battle, he catches the eye of charismatic mercenary leader Griffith (Takahiro Sakurai,) a seemingly superhuman man propelled by his ambitions. What follows? Well, that'd be getting into spoilers.

Moments like this I almost question if it's even worth the caption. I mean, this one practically writes a ream of material right here.

Anyway, the first film concerns Guts's first meeting Griffith and later joining his mercenary corps, The Band of the Hawk. It then proceeds to work through several of the main events of the first part of the story, most notably their meeting with recurring antagonist Nosferatu Zodd (Kenta Miyake) and Griffith's growing prominence in the noble circles (and the subsequent ire that earns him.)

One of the things that's still surprising to realize about this movie is how short it is. I mean, we live in a culture where nowadays it's almost unheard of for an action movie to come in at under two hours. By comparison, the first Berserk movie clocks in at all of an hour and sixteen minutes. Now it's rare to even find kids films that short.

That said, that brisk runtime is something of a, and I'm sorry to use this term here, double-edged sword for the movie. On the one hand, it keeps it from overstaying its welcome, and the movie keeps its plot at a lively pace. On the other hand, it means in order to cover the ground it wants to, arcs have to be folded over, cut out, or just skimmed over. This is especially pronounced in the first part - after a fairly well-handled and even expanded version of the siege where Guts proves himself by taking down the knight Bazuso, much of the subsequent arcs where his childhood and his early sorties getting to know his fellow members of the Band of the Hawk are all largely left out. The former is actually briefly hinted at care of a series of fever dream flashbacks by an injured Guts - it's an interesting way to try and cover the material (and somewhat thankful in a way of getting around one REALLY unpleasant part of his past) but if one isn't familiar with the original manga, the events are rather hard to make sense of. The last shot of the nightmare especially loses its impact if a viewer has no idea who the man Guts is watching die is. It's still a very effective sequence for dropping hints and just capturing the nightmare feel well, but it's a bit of a hurdle for any newcomers in the crowd. By comparison, the other early sorties are just dropped altogether, and after Guts is officially made a member, the movie jumps to a 'Three Years Later' card.

The second half of the movie has overall better pacing, and to its credit, makes a decent effort try and transition between the smaller plots to give the movie less of an episodic feeling. They don't always work too well, but the effort is at least appreciated, and a few of the new bits are actually pretty good means of maintaining the flow and tightening up events.

One of the better examples from this - both for scene bridging and time compression - comes care of a bridged scene where several nobles are seen discussing Griffith's successes on the battlefield. It's a pretty standard narrative trick - classic Greek chorus style recap - but it still makes for a decent transition events-wise, especially to help establish just how much of an upset his succeeding despite his common lineage is in the eyes of the nobles. Also, the decision to do this scene all through silhouettes is something of a nice touch. Yeah, it's likely to help save on some animation, but it does also help convey the notion that this small group is representing the sentiments of all of the nobility in Midland.

I'm trying my best not to compare this too much to the earlier series, because they're two different adaptations and two different formats, but I have to admit, it's very hard not to. Especially since it seems each picks up the ball where the other drops it.

Direction is a big example of this. The movie isn't particularly bad from a directorial standpoint, and there are a few scenes that I like the handling of in this version- most notably the end of the movie. Choosing to end the film with Griffith explaining his ambitions to the king's daughter, Charlotte, is a good choice to end the movie on - it helps remind us of the kind of man Griffith really is underneath it all, and how much his dreams define who he is. It's a scene that is vital to really helping establish his character, and without giving too much away, the movie sells both the delivery and the foreboding about how far this man might go. At other times in the film, however, the direction lacks something of the same impact the earlier version had. One of the biggest examples of this going to the confrontation with Zodd. Now, I liked parts of how the film handled this scene (most notably Guts's walking past the corpses of his men to the reveal of Zodd) but the scene lacks the overall ominous sense that was hanging over the scene in the earlier version- particularly in its last moments, which are supposed to be a grim bit of foreshadowing for events to come.

(...actually, I'd watch a version of this with Zodd dubbed by the late Randy Savage, but I digress.)

Outside of comparison, one sequence I will give the movie that is unique just to this version actually goes to the opening sequence. The siege the movie starts with is well done, both in terms of building up (the sequence starts with the sounds of combat muted staring at the sky before flying to the ground and the Hellish din of war) and the extent to which it's covered (the effects of the siege are shown at several levels, from soldiers to noncombatants, all moving fast in keeping the chaos of the sequence.)

On the comparison front, one area where this film holds a sizable edge is with regards to animation. I'm not sure how much budget the show had to work with, but I can honestly say its animation has NOT aged well at all. In fact, I was struck by just how often the show relied on stills and pans to get around certain sequences (to compare the two versions of the Bazuso scene, I was struck by the fact the series version apparently meant Guts had signed up to a corps of combat-trained ventriloquists. Everyone talking, no mouths moving.) By comparison, the movie's computer-based animation means they can do a lot more with motion. This isn't to say it's perfect - in fact, the large scale battle sequences tend to be plagued by a sort of stiff motion that causes many of the actions to look more like game cut-scenes, an effect only added to by the 'generic' faces on a lot of the soldiers under their helmets, which look eerily flat. It's like watching Guts fight his way through full-size Lego minifigures. At other times, however, the motions look surprisingly good, and at times it's easy to forget it's not CG animation because certain scenes manage to capture the 2D look well. As an animation style, this has a long way to go, but it's still come quite a ways from, say, the earlier Appleseed movies.

One of the tamer of the many scenes that had to be cut from The Lego Movie to maintain its family-friendly rating.

Alongside the animation, I do have to give this movie some extra points for the effort put into the combat choreography. One of the consequences of the earlier version's corner-cutting in animation was the fact many kills simply amounted to a still shot of a character with their sword drawn and their opponent spraying blood behind them. This time, they're better able to capture the speed and style used in the kills, so the fights become more than just 'swing once, NEXT.' I was actually surprised at some of the techniques they had animated some of these characters using for kills, particularly because many of them made sense in terms of 'you can target areas besides just swinging at the head or chest.' I continue to concede some of the motions are still a bit stiff, but hopefully that will be improved upon as the films go on.

At this point, about the only thing I really have to say sat fully wrong with me on this movie was the soundtrack. Now, Shiro Sagisu's score isn't bad on its own, but it's similar to comparing the scores Leonard Rosenman and Howard Shore did for their respective versions of Lord of the Rings. The Rosenman one is decent, but ultimately a pretty standard issue fantasy movie score. By comparison, Shore's version was a distinct part of its setting, and really helped define the films. The same has happened here - for years, Susumu Hirasawa has been the go-to composer for Berserk's music. First recommended by the original author, his score for the earlier series was, and still is, one of the best features of the show. The man's electronic-based score was a surprisingly good fit for the universe, with its sometimes tribal, sometimes unearthly quality that has since lead to his being called back to provide songs for several tie-in games to the series. We still get some of that feel in his one contribution to this version, the movie's opening theme Aria, but not hearing his style in the rest of the setting just feels off-putting. I know it sounds like an odd grievance to have, and comes across as just being critical of change, but it speaks to just how much his music had become a part of the world. Sagisu's score is still good, but it just does not seem to fit here.

"...and just watch. I'm gonna get blamed for all of this mess."

As far as the cast, I will admit I've only checked out the subtitled version so far (as the cast notes indicate.) The knowledge the dub brought back the cast of the series, which had a good quality dub all around, does speak very well for this, and has me curious to check it out in the future. The sub cast, on the other hand, are all largely recast compared to the original version. In this regard, they have proven well suited for the cast so far. Particularly surprising in the case of Iwanaga as Guts, who is still apparently quite new to voice acting. As the other main lead of the movie, Sakurai's Griffith strikes a good balance between his friendlier side and that underlying ruthlessness that goes with the character's drive. Rounding them out, Yukinari's turn as Casca is good so far, though she hasn't really gotten to do much with the role yet. This will change with the events of the second movie, so I'll withhold my full judgment on her for now.

In all, Egg of the King is a decent bid to reboot the title for animation. It's not a triumph out of the gate, but its failings also aren't so bad as to want to write things off. As is, it's taking the series out on the road for the first time in years, and in that regard, it's running better than expected. There's still a lot of things they can improve, but at this point it's less something to condemn, and more something to hope for in future movies. How far they take this project remains to be seen, but it's still off to a decent, if occasionally shaky, first step.

Whew. Not bad for a short film.

Hopefully, I'll have the laptop sorted out by next week at latest. In the meantime, I'll have another entry lined up for later this week. In the meantime, please bear with the delays, and we'll be back on schedule soon enough.

Till then!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Mobile Suit Gundam: Char's Counterattack - The Final* Chapter

*(Until Bandai and Sunrise decide they can get away with otherwise, that is.)

It's that time of the month again, folks.
Seeing as I have something lined up for Holy Week next week (that's actually not blasphemous) this week seemed as good a time as any for this month's entry for Gundam's 35th anniversary.

This one is something of a major milestone in the franchise's history on a couple of levels. For starters, this was the first completely original Gundam movie ever made, as opposed to the earlier films being a recut compilation. This was also the first big effort by creator Yoshiyuki Tomino to close the book on several big story elements once and for all.

Before we get into the movie itself, though, it's history time (again. Sorry, a lot of time passed between the last movie and this.)

When we last left things, Gundam had gotten big- Very big. It was a breakout hit for Sunrise, and there was an interest in continuing the story. However, Tomino wanted to move on. In the years following the original series, he in fact went on to try his hand at several other shows to distance himself from Gundam, including Aura Battler Dunbine, Space Runaway Ideon, and Combat Mecha Xabungle. Each of these went in different directions in terms of ideas and tone, and really carved out unique identities for themselves that have allowed them to endure to this day. Yet nothing was quite as big as Gundam. Eventually (and this is one of those areas where a combination of lack of much behind the scenes info getting out combined with a language barrier makes the story hazy for English-speaking fans) he finally came back to give his hit series a sequel.

Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam was designed to be a darker look at the follow-up to the original series. After the devastation of the One Year War, the Federation's more corrupt elements were able to seize power via a special operative branch known as the Titans. Rather than being a retread 'Earth vs Space' concept, the show played as an internal civil war in the Federation, with the protagonists being in the splinter organization known as the AEUG (Anti-Earth United Government...it's Engrish folks, this could have been a LOT worse.) Without saying too much to give things away, the show stuck to its darker guns to the very end- which ended on a cliffhanger with many characters dead and the threat of a new Zeonic revival on the rise.

Literally the week after Zeta ended, its sequel series ZZ Gundam began. After the bleak finale of its predecessor, this show opted to try for a lighter tone. Depending who you ask, this decision was either a much needed dose of levity after an overly depressing ending or a rather clumsily added element of forced humor that really didn't fit. Suffice it to say, to this day, ZZ remains something of a divisive title within the fandom. As the show went on, it regained some more serious elements, but kind of hit some snags in the final arc.

This is where Char's Counterattack comes into play. Again, the information here is fuzzy thanks to cultural and language barriers, but as the stories have gone, ZZ originally was being set up with a much different finale than what it has now. As the stories have gone, ZZ WAS going to be the big finale, with Char (who was last established as MIA at the end of Zeta) coming back, taking control of his organization back from its established leadership, and leading one last push against the Earth in a big 'winner take all' ending. How much of that was meant to come to pass is a subject that's up for debate, but the show certainly shows signs it was being rewritten as they went, and this movie is the big reason why. It was greenlit mid-way into the series, and so any and all plans involving bringing Char back were reworked to free up elements and set the stage for the movie.

There, that's about as spoiler-free as I can get that for you.

Onto the movie.

Char's Counterattack opened in March of 1988, and was being advertised as the big finale. Fun fact regarding that - if you can get access to the old R1 Bandai Entertainment release, the bonuses do include the old Japanese promotions for the movie. It's not an exaggeration to say the movie was hyped up this way. This was the huge final chapter that was going to settle everything once and for all.

Suffice it to say, a lot got promised. How much got delivered? That's a matter of some debate.

Char's Counterattack is one of those movies that I find has a lot both going for it and against it. If I had to pick the single biggest problem with it, it's probably in the fact that it's ultimately trying to do a lot more than the time allows for. Unfortunately, unlike the earlier trilogy, there isn't really an alternative series version to check out, which has the breathing room to expand on these ideas. Unless someone takes it on themselves to translate the novels Tomino also wrote based on the story (and even those you take with a grain of salt, since he treated his novels as a separate continuity from his animated works) this is the only version we have to go on. Part of the problem with that is the fact that this movie hits the 'in media res' button pretty hard. More to the point, it smashes it with a full fist. As a general rule, Tomino as a storyteller tends to be big on in media res anyway, and when he's doing it with a series, that's one thing. In a series, it's a solid hook that you have the time to then unfold all the events of your narrative. Trying to do it in a movie that's only slightly longer than two hours becomes problematic. This is especially true in the first fifteen minutes where you're inundated with a lot of information that even those familiar with the previous series will find a bit confusing. The only thing we really get close to a handout as the audience is a single line in the opening scene, when Londo Bell officer Chan Agi (Mitsuki Yayoi) explains the situation - Char's back (and still voiced by Shuichi Ikeda,) he's leading Neo-Zeon, and as this is going on, he's getting ready to pull a Bond Villain and drop an asteroid onto Earth. That's the closest thing you're going to get to a lifeline this entire movie, kids. Hope you can swim.

"The next one we'll be hitting the Earth with will be THIIIIIIIIIIS big!"

Now, one of the other big drawbacks here is, in media res can still be relatively well-navigated with the right protagonist -- someone who's as inexperienced as the audience is and is learning as they go is a great fit for this sort of role.  The problem is, CCA's protagonist is NOT the man for the job - with Char's revival, it all comes to Amuro Ray (Tohru Furuya,) back in the pilot seat again and now a good deal more level headed and skilled, to finish the fight. It's a nice growth for the character, and proof he's come a long way from that wet-behind-the-ears fifteen-year-old who fell into a robot by chance, but he's already so immersed in what's going on that there's no opening to give the audience a learning curve. He certainly tries to explain parts of it while discussing strategy, but that context can only take things just so far.

Fortunately, parts of the story can at least be relatively easily inferred as you go along, but it doesn't wash all of the situation, and it's rather telling that the R1 release of this came with a booklet just to help make sense of the setting for the era (granted, it also didn't help that the English release jumped straight past the two follow-up series so we went straight from Mobile Suit Gundam to CCA with Zeta only being released much later and ZZ only seeing an official release via streams last year.) Of course, even when you get past parsing out the jumbled setting, the movie still has its problems. Once you get your bearings on the setting (again, that feeling should diminish after the first fifteen minutes or so) the fact is, the movie feels very rushed in terms of how it all progresses. It's technically a complete narrative, but the number of jumps it makes to keep the action flowing really get awkward at times. The overall story feels like it might have been better served as a short OVA series as opposed to fitting it all into a single movie. As it is, it feels like watching a compilation feature for a show that never happened - you can imagine where other scenes would have been, but they're just gone.

Suffice it to say, with a story like this, the characters get hit hard. Most of the returning characters make out alright. Like I said before, Amuro's arc is actually a pretty good development for him after the shell-shocked young man we last saw in Zeta, seeing him turn into a capable veteran who has still managed to hold on to some faith in humanity is actually a pretty satisfactory end point for him. Likewise, Bright (Hirotaka Suzuoki) continues to hold up as the closest thing the franchise had to this point for a recurring focal character. It feels a bit strange to not see him in any sort of mentor role this time out, but he's still holding his own as a soldier who, despite working for a fairly crooked government, is doing his best to keep the general citizens from having to pay for the failings of their leaders. The one recurring character who takes the hardest hit in this is none other than our titular antagonist. Char's depiction in this movie has been the source of all manner of essays and arguments in the fandom for years and sparking a LOT of different opinions. To some people, his turn from being patient with humanity in Zeta to going "Nuts to this! I'm gonna force humanity off the Earth!" is a regression from the arc the character had been set on over the course of two series. To others, it's a sign of how the events of ZZ (which he was largely absent for) embittered the man on any sort of hope for the future. Which isn't a bad reading, but it's one the movie never even seems to entertain. In fact, almost nothing is said for what prompted his change of gears, even though Amuro has several times in the film where he essentially does ask Char "What the Hell, man?" Further, Char's suddenly deciding after all this time he's not actually over Lalah Sune (Keiko Han returning in a brief role) feels like a considerable step back to a lot of people. It's kind of a shame that, while Amuro actually had a pretty natural growth from the insecure kid he was into a pretty reasonable adult, Char's descent instead feels like a massive derailment due to lack of explanation. I'm not saying they even needed to do a lot to explain it, but the fact is, it isn't even one that inference helps.

"Son, what did I just get finished telling you? As a little kid, you were essentially a non-character. We'll get back to you later!"

As for the new cast, due to little time they get, most of them never really get beyond their archetypes. A large chunk of time in the film is devoted to new (well, semi-new in Hathaway's case, but seeing how little he did in Zeta, he may as well be new) characters Hathaway Noah and Quess Paraya (Nozomu Sasaki and Maria Kawamura) but they never really seem to benefit from the extra focus. In the end, they amount to little more than a naïve kid in over his head, and a stubborn kid who thinks she knows more about the world than she actually does (a personality that has made Quess a pretty heavily disliked character in the fandom. Then again, Hathaway's not much more popular.) This is kind of a shame, since the two present an interesting sort of counterbalance to Tomino's running theme in the two prior series about how adults don't understand and the future should be trusted to the children. By comparison, Quess and Hathaway seem to be his way of going "...although sometimes, children are just plain wrong, too."

When your own mobile suit doesn't even want you, THAT should tell you something!

Alongside them, the support pilots on both sides are incredibly one-note characters: Kayra (Shinobu Adachi) is brought into the film with a crosshairs on her forehead, Rezin (Kazue Ikura) is just obnoxious, and Gyunei (Kouichi Yamadera) is just a walking heap on inadequacy complexes that eventually leads to a completely underwhelming fate. About the only other character even worth mentioning for much here is Quess's father, Adenauer (Shunsuke Shima) and that's mostly just cause, on this rewatch, I've kind of realized just how played out the self-serving Earth politician character type is in this franchise. At the point this was made, it was still somewhat flexible, but nowadays, it really does feel like an easy out for writers to avoid having to actually write a character.

...okay, there's Chan also. But there's not a whole lot I can say for a character who was mainly written in because the backers didn't like Amuro's girlfriend from Zeta.

To the movie's credit, however, where it fumbles on storytelling, it succeeds on several technical levels.
While the film's story doesn't fully come together, there are several individual sequences that are well written and directed. Sequences like Char's rallying speech at Sweetwater and the opening battle over the asteroid Fifth Luna, even if the latter is somewhat steeped in awkward information-dump, are strongly put together sequences; the former for capturing the element of Char as a statesman as well as helping convey just the full spread of Neo-Zeon and its standing, both in the speech and just how the crowds are depicted, and the latter for establishing the two-fold nature of Amuro and Char's conflict, exchanging words as they exchange blows- a storytelling element that is, admittedly, somewhat played out in the franchise overall, but played well here.

In general,  the combat in this movie is very well arranged. The above-mentioned Fifth Luna battle captures the kind of chaotic disarray Tomino had previously achieved with the climax of the original Gundam. Further, the entire final battle over Axis- in particular the final duel between Amuro and Char is up there with some of the best combat sequences Tomino has put together- rivaling some of his work on Victory Gundam as some of the best fight sequences in the franchise. That last duel is honestly one of the highlights of the movie ñ as Amuro and Char lock in their final battle in which every weapon is used, till they finally just go at each other slugging it out in (giant robotic) hand to hand combat.

...you know what, why pick just? Insert a Rock 'Em' Sock 'Em Robots joke of your choice here.

Further adding to those fights, the movie's mobile suits are all well designed by Yutaka Izubuchi. After the varied (but admittedly still pretty damn nice) designs over the course of Z and ZZ, the majority of the mobile suit designs in this film actually feel more like a thought out design progression, with the Jegan and the Geara Doga as the next evolutionary jumping off points for the GM and Zaku. Further, the two main designs of the movie, the Nu Gundam and the Sazabi, also carry that evolution of design, evoking callbacks to the two suits that started it all ñ the original RX-78 Gundam and Char's own custom Zaku. They are also very unique designs on their own, but one can see the stylistic call back in them.

"Who's failing to hit NOW?"

On top of all of this, the film's soundtrack, by Shigeaki Saegusa, is probably one of the strongest parts of the movie. For a movie that was being advertised as the big showstopping finale of the original Gundam storyline, Saegusa's soundtrack gives the movie a suitable send-off. With tracks that range from the symphonic and bombastic (the main titles, Nu Gundam's theme) to the quieter, but still emotional ('Quess Paraya', 'Sacrifice') the film's score helps the film maintain the necessary sense of grandeur that it was trying for, even if the rest of the film doesn't always hit it. Further, in continuing the franchise's good track record with vocal insert tracks, the movie's end theme, 'Beyond the Time' by TM Network is up with 'Ai Senshi' from the second MSG movie in terms of the franchise's memorable theme songs.

In all, for the movie that was supposed to be the big finish to the original Gundam trilogy, it's a pretty uneven closer. The  strong visual eye and the fact that it has one of the best scores of the  the franchise make it a very impressive spectacle if nothing else. Unfortunately, for as many interesting ideas and strong individual sequences as it brings to the table, it's still got many problems with its pace and a feeling that large chunks of story got left out. The result is still an interesting experience, but one that feels like it could have benefited from having much more time to tell its story than it had to work with.

That brings us to the end of this month's entry. As fun facts go, this month also actually marked the official birthday of the franchise, with the first episode of the original series debuting on April 7th. Also, as I said before, despite Tomino's best efforts to close the book, Sunrise and Bandai weren't inclined to just let a good thing die, as we'll be learning again next month.

In the meantime, as promised, next week will see the plan for Holy Week, which should prove an interesting discussion.

Till then!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Wind Rises

The biggest thought I had after seeing The Wind Rises was that, more than anything, I hope this truly isn't Hayao Miyazaki's final film. This stems from two reasons; on the one hand, there was something very enjoyable to being able to see another film from the master in theaters for the first time - especially since, despite this being a man declaring retirement, parts of this movie are up there with some of his prime work. However, to be perfectly honest, this is a disappointing movie for a man of Miyazaki's caliber to go out on. It's not awful – in fact, there are several good elements going into it – the problem is, the movie as a whole is a rather weak offering from an industry titan.

Based on a manga written by Miyazaki, the movie is a rather ambitious effort for him – a biographical account of Jiro Horikoshi, the designer whose work would become famous most notably through the Mitsubishi Zero fighter plane (Miyazaki covers his childhood and (roughly) follows the various steps in his life that lead to the development of the fighter). This is, first and foremost, a story of one man's pursuit of his dreams of flight. On paper, this should serve as a great jumping off point – making a person's passion into the centerpoint of a story can make for a great exploration of their personality and drive, and is fertile ground for a lot of good storytelling. Which is why it feels strange when the movie doesn't fully connect.

To Miyazaki's credit, his direction on individual sequences in this movie is up there with some of his greatest work. The film starts off on particularly a strong note with its introduction of young Jiro, care of a dream sequence which helps us establish his love of flight in general, as well as why he goes into design (as his poor eyesight hinders his abilities to be a pilot). This is conveyed phenomenally well, and establishes all of it without saying a word. Jiro's flight of fancy is a visually rich sequence that's on par with many of Miyazaki's previous greats – especially near the end as reality intrudes on Jiro's vision  with an air raid by a group of shapeless monsters. The sequence could have still been memorable had it just cut off with Jiro soaring the skies in his home-made dream plane, but this extra touch gives a memorable visual dash while also further establishing his character.

"...my God. It's full of planes..."

Dream sequences in general are a big part of Jiro's characterization, though the bulk of the others are more focused on his conversations with a dream version of Gianni Caproni. These make for an interesting alternative to an internal dialogue and are an effective way at helping guide us visually through Jiro's thought process. This is further added to by the fact that, for being ultimately a plot device, Caproni is still a likable character regardless. His role as first a friendly mentor and later contemporary make up a good chunk of Jiro's development as far as his pursuit of his dream.

Outside of the dreams, the movie is a bit more scattershot. We do still get some other great sequences from a directorial standpoint, but the story suffers for reasons I'll get into shortly. Still, the sequences certainly merit their due here, most notably during an early part of the movie in which Jiro is caught in the middle of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. This sequence is probably the strongest example of directing in the movie, and one can certainly see how Miyazaki was influenced by Japan's recent quake. These sequences are very effective at capturing the chaos and destruction of the quake and its ensuing fires while never feeling exploitative, or like Studio Ghibli is trying to milk the tragedy for an audience reaction. It's a striking sequence that captures Miyazaki's strong visual style while also carrying a more grounded use of it compared to the dreams. Another great example of the movie's good visual eye comes from a sequence in which Jiro and one of his colleagues visit Germany. They're given a chance to ride in a German-made plane and observe its workings. The sequence, while not as overtly visually stunning as other parts of this movie, is still quite fascinating to watch, and one can't help but feel some of Jiro's love for the aerial technology rubbing off on us as we join him in exploring the German aircraft.

As I said above, the movie's biggest stumbling block is in the storytelling. Which I feel kind of bad to have to say since it's a good concept, and from a direction standpoint, Miyazaki does a good job of letting us feel Jiro's passion. But in terms of the writing, the movie feels rather disjointed. We get a lot of individual sequences and plotlines that are good, but never come together into a finished movie. One of the biggest examples of this is with regards to a character introduced midway into the movie – German visitor Castorp (who, as fun facts go, is voiced in the English dub by acclaimed director Werner Herzog.) I wanted to like Castorp, as he starts off as a friendly enough character, but the fact is that he never really amounts to much in the overall film. He mainly just serves as one of the film's many fringe reminders that World War II is on the horizon. He talks it over a bit with Jiro, and otherwise is just a friendly face until he disappears one day with the Japanese authorities hot on his heels.

While the randomness kind of maintains a creepy element, he still doesn't quite feel suitably Herzog. Points for the casting in any case.

With that, I suppose now's probably the best time to take on one of the big elephants in the room with regards to this movie before I get back to the rest of the review. Yes, this is a movie from Japan discussing the country's involvement in World War II. For those who don't see why this is an elephant in the room – the fact is, Japan did a lot of VERY questionable/terrible things during the war, most notably during their occupations of China and Manchuria. Their actions there have been something of a controversial point in discussing the war, and are to this day still rather taboo to discuss- to the point where some deny anything happened at all. When this movie was announced, the question immediately rose over how much the film would address that point. Personally, I had a feeling they weren't going to do much with it – I don't judge the film for that on its own, per se – it's a cultural sore spot, and I'm coming from a different perspective on the matter. The problem is, the film does attempt to address it, but doesn't really go that far into it. We do see some small conflict from Jiro as to how to reconcile his love of planes with the idea of making things that will be used to kill people – and this is an idea that can make for some great character growth. The problem is, it's ultimately resolved in a single conversation with Caproni that boils the concept down to “yes, they'll be misused, but they can still be beautiful on their own.” Which, on its own, isn't a bad argument to make, but the film never really pursues it for much in the long run. It's the kind of case that feels like it should merit a bit more questioning from Jiro in order for him to eventually come to peace with the matter. In the end, the scene winds up feeling less like an attempt to reconcile the issue, and more paying lip service to it. Combined with the film's epilogue, which also feels like a sort of clumsy means of addressing the darker side of these planes (And history), there's a part of me that would have almost preferred they avoid the issue entirely rather than tip-toe around it like this.

"That...actually doesn't make much sense to me...but you ARE flamboyant and Italian, so I suppose it works!"

Probably the one other plot thread that is hurt the most by this lack of cohesion is Jiro's relationship with Naoko Satomi, an ill woman whom he meets at a resort. Their relationship starts well, and even manages to do a good job building up much of it through little sequences and montage conveying more through the visuals rather than dialogue. Unfortunately, after Jiro returns to his work, the relationship storyline suffers – between her illness and Jiro being targeted by the authorities for his ties with Castrop, the movie wants to build up a case of two people in love who continue to stay true to each other over various odds, but all too often, it feels like the relationship is just remembered or forgotten at the script's convenience. The biggest disappointment of this coming in the fact that, while a nice enough character, Naoko is rather lacking in the way of personality or agency. There's other directors I would probably be more apt to let this go from, but given Miyazaki is a director who is often praised for his well-written female characters, this was a rather disappointing decision from him.

It's a little like a separate movie got cut into the middle of this one. I'm sure the full film would have been good, but the cut in segments just don't work.

In terms of acting, I will confess I haven't gotten the chance to check out the original Japanese language track (though I must admit I am interested – especially seeing as Jiro is voiced by Hideaki Anno, known by most as the creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion.) The members of the dub cast are, in general, fairly well chosen. Despite his big dreams, Jiro is something of a restrained personality in the movie, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes a good fit for the role. Meanwhile, as his guide in pursuing his dreams, Stanley Tucci gives a lot of warmth to Caproni for what scenes he has to work with. The rest of the cast all carry themselves well on this one. It's not one of the greatest dubs I have ever heard, but it's still quite good for the film in question.

Finally, as one more note of praise for the movie, it's worth again pointing out the score by Ghibli veteran Joe Hisaishi. As a man who has, to this point, scored many of Studio Ghibli's greatest, he continues to prove why he's one of their regulars on this movie. His music paired with some of Miyazaki's strong visuals are reason enough to give this movie a watch, even with its problematic script.

I will admit, I do feel kind of bad about some of this review. Not bad enough to rescind my statements, but enough to admit it kind of hurt to admit this movie disappointed me as much as it did. I went into this really wanting to like it and was somewhat let down.
It's not actually a bad movie. I'll continue to state that. In fact, in general it's still one of the better movies I've seen this year, and I'm glad I did get to see this in theaters. At the same time, however, I will stand by my hope that this won't be the last we hear of Miyazaki as a director. While this wasn't his strongest by any means, it certainly also showed me he's still got it in him to knock our socks off at least one more time.

I'll be keeping my fingers crossed for ya, Hayao. If you do decide to stick with this, however, let me just say
1) this still doesn't erase all the top notch work you've done to this point
2) to that end, thanks for all the great work. Though I will continue to hope you step into the ring one more time.

Till next time, folks!