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!