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I wrote 95% of this 9 months ago and forgot about it until today. Some of this makes me cringe and I wish it could have been written differently but here it is anyway, warts and all. It’s been almost two weeks since I saw The Wind Rises. I left the theater wondering if I was going to come back again to watch it a second time. It’s most assuredly gone now so I’ll have to wait for a Blu-Ray release, where it’ll probably take its place next to my unopened copy of Wolf Children and other films I’ve picked up but still haven’t watched since getting my Blu-Ray player for Christmas. I was anticipating this film more than I have for any movie in quite a long time. It was an experience that did not disappoint, but that’s a far cry from saying that it delivered exactly what I was hoping for. I found it very inspiring, although not in the way that most of its admirers likely do. Obviously, my feelings about this film are a little complicated, and I don’t know if I’m going to come any closer to clarifying them by the time I’m done writing this.
The Wind Rises is a beautiful film and does not visually disappoint. The color and the detail is as vivid as anything every produce by Studio Ghibli. This kind of look is probably misunderstood as old-fashioned and boring by most Western viewers who’ve had their brains melted by a decade-plus of gaudy CGI cartoons that have set the standard for what is “realistic” and “beautiful,” two words that have come to mean the same thing, even as neither alone paints an accurate description of most works that they’re so commonly lobbed at. It’s probably more wise to study the composition of the scenes themselves rather than the stuff that they’re made of: the actual shots that make up The Wind Rises, as described in the script and composed by the storyboard artists and animators, are glorious in a thoughtful way that neither few Western audiences (or even Western anime fans) have the patience to observe, consider, or appreciate. If this were a film by any other director, no one in America would have stayed awake for it (assuming that they would have bothered to see it in the first place) and few anime fans would have looked up from whatever tween-incest comedy/”epic” action series they’re torrenting fansubs of to even notice it at all. That’s not to say that there aren’t an embarrassment of spectacular moments that demand attention, but those viewers expecting the aerial dogfights of Porco Rosso might find themselves wondering what the big deal is.
Cutting right to the chase, this is a weird movie. Structurally, it doesn’t follow the usual arc that filmmakers are taught to follow or the audiences are told to expect and value. The main character doesn’t develop or “change” in the way that viewers have been conditioned to respond to. The movie is rather long (2 hours and change) and often feels meandering in search of the conflicts and orgasmic resolutions that make up the plot of what a movie is “supposed” to do. We follow Jiro (Jiro Horikoshi, a real aircraft designer whose work in the 1930s and 1940s helped modernize the Japanese air force) through his childhood, into his college years and his first days on the job as an engineer, which takes him across the world and gives him an up-close view of many of the most important events of the first half of the 20th century. We glimpse his reoccurring dreams, watch him fall in love and struggle with the complexities of the turbulent world around him, which seem intent on taking his inspired vision of flight and applying it to violent and disastrous ends. From the beginning of the film, it’s clear that Jiro is a good person who values peace and fairness, yet he rarely deviates from his devotion to his projects or his lifelong goal to buck the system in any meaningful way. This may seem inconsistent or immoral to viewers who believe in superhero protagonists who always do the right thing and are never unsure of the difference between right and wrong or their ability and moral obligation to enforce such laws.
My impressions of the main character: a very kind, intelligent, slow to anger, patient man who sees the world as it is and is so focused on his goals that they’re all he really needs to be happy. This is the kind of person that I want to be. Unfortunately, it’s established very early on that this is who he has always been, that hard work is in his blood and that a perpetually clear and rational mind make up the central core of his identity. Neither primed for greatness or forced to overcome any tremendous adversity, Jiro has always been an extremely gifted person in a natural way that is simply out of reach for most of us. Could this be interpreted as a kind of objectivist parable? Who knows? Miyazaki’s admiration for Jiro surely stems from his love of flying (or vice versa?) and may also come out of a respect for dreamers or iconoclasts. It’s also clear that this kind of excellence is simply not within everyone’s reach, that the best most of us can do is to try to recognize others who may possess it and to do our best to enable them. Maybe that’s a horrible interpretation of the film’s message, one that I’m not even sure I completely agree with, although I’m sure I feel that way about some people, as do most of us, probably.
Don’t get me wrong, most of the film focuses on Jiro’s hard work and determination, which surely cultivated a sense of commitment and refusal to give up in the face of setbacks, which are hardly glossed over in the film’s portrayal of his creative process. Maybe that’s what I liked most about this film. Aside from an early dramatic scene depicting a disastrous earthquake, a lot of the movie just follows Jiro around. He spends a lot of time studying in school. He’s committed to excellence in his first job after college, despite being a low-level engineer with few major responsibilities. He’s driven by a narrow set of goals and little else. This is really inspiring to watch. It also feels like a totally alien experience to me. Is that because I’m a lazy person, or because I live in a world full of distractions — you’re reading one right now — and low expectations? I like to think that if I lived in a pre-Internet world free of electronic comforts or the mass media, maybe I could have parlayed my giften childhood into something useful as an adult. I mean, imagine growing up in a society where children soak up judo and aikido and are better at math than most American college students today. What if your nights were spent lying on the roof and gazing at the stars instead of staring at a screen? Again, this is not the point of the film at all, but I was really caught up in the simplicity of the world that it depicted and the purity of vision that it could inspire in people. Maybe this sounds like dangerously simple, idyllic Japanophile nonsense. Or maybe it isn’t.
As far as the English dub is concerned, I thought this was another excellent and respectful treatment from the folks at Disney and the cast they brought in. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and John Krasinski did amazing work and play it mellow when I suspect that most voice actors of the American anime industry would have hammed it up to an ear-piercing degree. As skeptical as I’ve always been of the apparent necessity to cast well-known actors for roles in animated films (regardless of whether or not they have any experience in the medium or even show a predilection for it at all), the dubbing of all the Ghibli films that I’ve seen in English over the years (usually in theaters, starting with Spirited Away in 2002 or 2003, whenever it made its way to the multiplex near my college) has never been disappointing for me. The Wind Rises continues this fairy-respectful and successful tradition. It might also be the end of it as we know it. Few of Ghibli’s non-Miyazaki films hold much commercial potential in the West: they’re either culturally-specific products of the country they were made in, or hold little appeal for children. We may have hoped that gradual box-office success in the West, coupled with high praise from critics or word-of-mouth, would slowly expand the distribution of Japanese animation into theaters. On the contrary, it’s possible that we may be seeing the end of this decade-plus experiment, which never quite pierced the consciousness of the average moviegoer, young or old.
This isn’t a proper review so much as a general and very personal reaction to the film, so I don’t know how useful it will be to you. It is absolutely a great movie, although it may not live up to the hype placed upon it. And how could it? For months now, the stories about Miyazaki’s retirement (which is probably final, let’s face it) have overshadowed the film itself. He’s definitely an artist worth celebrating, but his films deserve to stand on their own, too. If your only exposure to the world of Miyazaki or Studio Ghibli has been through one of their signature films — My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away, to pick a few — The Wind Rises will definitely come as a revelation. But I don’t think anyone else needs convincing at this point. Well, most of America, but that goes without saying.
Kokoro Connect embodies a lot of anime tropes and cliches that I absolutely hate. That doesn’t mean that it couldn’t work with said cliches and do something creative with them, but I really don’t feel like it did or ever tried to. And I realize that that opinion is going to sound ridiculous to a lot of viewers because it has a pretty fantastic premise that’s anything but ordinary, at least compared to most high school-themed series of the last five or ten years. Despite that, I don’t think that it lived up to its potential. Are my expectations really fair? Is Kokoro Connect a “bad” series? Or is my reaction to it just a product of my own priorities and personal pet peeves?
I’d like to try keeping up a positive attitude more these days, so I’ll talk about what I liked about the series. It had a really interesting premise, some of the characters were likable, and the animation was bright and colorful and looked… well, pretty much like everything else these days. Okay, I think that’s all I have in me.
I can’t project motives onto its creators or know what their mindset was while writing the story, but as a former adolescent boy I think it’s interesting to speculate on. Heck, gender doesn’t have everything to do with it; everyone has experienced loneliness or alienation at some point in their lives, particularly in high school. Wanting to connect with others, trying to express your feelings or learning to navigate relationships are all matters that no one is particularly good at without a bit of practice first. Unfortunately, experiencing certain amounts of social disappointment is inevitable and some people will react better to it than others. You’ll either learn how to understand people, how to be a better listener, and how to appreciate people for who they are and not for what they could potentially do for you. Or you’ll feel entitled to other people’s approval or affection and quickly grow bitter over the dissonance in your life.
There’s a third path out there for anyone who wants to justify the perceived unfairness of the world, but it requires a lot of painful reflection that can never amount to anything beside grandiose daydreams. It requires a strong belief in oneself as a great guy — I believe this is a particularly male fantasy, feel free to disagree but hear me out first — and the conviction that fate or some unfair circumstances have intervened to prevent everyone else from seeing so. But what if you were thrown into some fantastic situation where people couldn’t ignore you, where the real you could shine and your peers would clearly see how wonderful you really are? Such begins Kokoro Connect, where a group of five students is beset upon by some supernatural force, causing them to randomly swap bodies for several hours a day. Of course, this necessitates a certain amount of intimate trust, but if you’re fantasizing about how to make friends, it’s a tantalizing idea.
Kokoro Connect was written by Sadanatsu Anda. I don’t know if Sadanatsu Anda is female or male. I can’t find a photo or any biographical information online, and the few anime database sites that attempt to offer any information at all list Anda’s gender as N/A. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, and I actually respect creative people who let their work speak for itself and would rather remain anonymous than participate in the popularity contest of the Internet. But so much of this story feels like an adolescent male fantasy, one that grows less and less subtle with every episode, that I have to wonder. Don’t be fooled by the prospect of an ensemble cast. Most of the plot flows through Taichi, our main protagonist, who’s commonly told that his most glaring character flaw is that he’s too selfless for his own good. I cannot say that I’ve ever felt that way about another person or could imagine what that might be like. Then again, there’s very little human interaction in this story that resembles real people or real life.
Taichi is not a loner or even a lovable loser. He seems to be quite popular, actually. But his strong desire to help others — more often experienced in adolescence as a desire to simply be needed than any kind of actual impulse to make sacrifices for others — is really getting him down. A familiar teacher enters the club room (!), visibly possessed by a being of a mischievous nature, who lays out the plot and all its rules for both the audience and the main characters. There’s little exploration of what swapping bodies with another person might actually be like. There’s plenty of raunchy humor and implied naughtiness. Everyone takes these events in stride because they don’t matter in any way other than to set Taichi up in one scenario after another where he “fixes” his friends’ problems with nothing more than the wisdom that comes out of being a totally selfless person. I guess.
Taichi’s friend Iori has a violent stepfather. Years of violence at home are suddenly solved by her friend’s intervention. His friend Himeko is revealed to be very distrustful of others and her reaction to the fantastic and terrifying events of the series are some of its only truly believable moments. Besides her cold demeanor, she’s actually the most likable character in the series. Taichi puts a stop to this by showing her the light. Yui was almost raped a few years ago and has developed a chronic case of androphobia (not PTSD, which is messy and complicated, but a fear of men, which is now an endearing and often hilarious character trait). Taichi shows her that she’s all worked up over nothing and that, even as a black belt in karate, she still doesn’t know The One Weird Trick that will stop any man in his tracks. Problem solved! His friend Yoshifumi doesn’t need help because he’s a guy. Girls are crazy! Am I right?
Maybe there’s potential for this to go somewhere, but the body-swap plot is dropped after a handful of episodes and replaced by other contrived scenarios that exist only to either humilate Yui, Iori and Himeko, or to “empower” them by turning them into hysterical nymphomaniacs. Maybe this is provocative stuff if you’re of a certain age and if it is, please enjoy every second of it that you can. I watch a lot of high school-themed anime but this is one of the first that made me feel like my inner 15 year-old was being pandered to in the least imaginative ways possible. Full disclosure: I actually enjoy exploring that zone a lot, maybe to the point of dangerous indulgence, but Kokoro Connect‘s deus ex machina plot, condescending attitude towards girls and generally insane interpersonal interactions (comprising a lot of writerspeak dialog, filled in by routine sexual harassment and physical violence that’s far too brutal to pass as mere slapstick and never really portrayed as such) constructed a world that left me disappointed after a handful of episodes and curiously numb by its end.
The final episode brings no resolution or explanation. Apparently there are four additional episodes (not on Hulu or Crunchyroll) that might bring about a proper conclusion to the story. Maybe they’re online somewhere but I don’t have plans to watch them. I’m sure they’re packed with more wacky hijinx, embarrassing misunderstandings and tearful confessions, which will continue to be rolled out with a kind of predictability that resembles a boilerplate shonen battle series in its approach to conflict and resolution.
A common criticism lobbed at many titles is the dreaded label of “wish-fulfillment fantasy.” I don’t know if that’s wrong or not, or if its cousin, the “power fantasy,” is really any worse. I definitely enjoy a lot of titles that would fit both of those pejorative descriptions. Here’s where I would try to justify my preferences, only I don’t know how seeing as I probably contradict myself when it comes to laying down rules about what the “right” or “wrong” ways to tell stories in a medium like this would be. But I’m definitely suspicious of any story that tries to oblige me in so many transparent ways. Kokoro Connect does little but oblige the viewer to an almost pornographic extent, particularly when Taichi is treated as a kind of viewer surrogate, which would make sense given how so much of its target audience will identify with him.
Ultimately, that’s something I cannot know and a claim I shouldn’t try to make. Then again, I read dozens of pages of Kokoro Connect discussion on MAL and it was very difficult to find anything other than overenthusiastic praise for it. I’m just very tired of this kind of series and these kind of characters and I feel like this was the straw that broke the camel’s back, or at least made me feel jaded or cynical about modern anime in a way that I didn’t feel before I watched it. It seems inevitable that almost all anime fans will drop out of the hobby at one point or another. I’m pretty far past the point where this was supposed to happen and it seems unlikely to happen any time soon, but if it ever does, I feel like I’ll look back at my experience with this series as the beginning of the end.