The Wind Rises: Childhood’s End

I finally got to see my first Miyazaki film in the theater when I took the kids to see The Wind Rises this weekend. I’m still kicking myself for missing The Secret World of Arietty when it passed through town as that has since become my most deeply felt Miyazaki film – I hesitate to use words like “favorite” with my darlings – and that would have just killed on the big screen.  Hayao Miyazaki has stated that this is his last film, and even though he’s retired before, I should not be messing around with being “too busy”. The Wind Rises is the biography of plane engineer Dr. Jiro Horikoshi who designed planes before and during WWII. As a last film, this is both a departure and right in line with Miyazaki’s body of work, a puzzling, deeply personal biopic about a childhood hero that elides as much as it informs. It it both gorgeous and strangely inert.

This isn’t going to be a review, btw; it’s more going to be a collection of impressions. I don’t have a mind for the visual, and I’m no film scholar.

There are two Ursula K. Le Guin novels I haven’t read: Malafrena and Always Coming Home. (Note: Ursula K. Le Guin is my heart, and the writer whose works are most important to me on every single level.) I’ve only taken one run at Malafrena, and I suspect it was mostly wrong timing, as her other Orsinian tales – Orsinia is the fictitious country in which a collection of her stories occur – worked for me entirely. (She’s coming to terms with Virginia Woolf, on some level, in those stories. I know!) I’ve crashed on the rocks of Always Coming Home at least twice, making it a third of the way in before I just set it down and walked away. I posted a non-review of my failure at some point, and a fellow ursine reader sent me this just transcendent explication of the book, calling it her most personal work, this deeply felt but also surface-placid recollection and exploration. I still haven’t read it, despite circling around the book-with-cassette-tape edition I have on my shelves. I have a discomfort about it, like watching something too personal.

There’s something to that here, in The Wind Rises. My husband and I had a long conversation about works we thought fit this strange format: undisputed masters of their craft creating art that ultimately fails (on some level) because the artist has an audience of one: the artist. We can piggyback into this audience, or worm our ways in using biography or the tabs on the personal that align in some feeling way, but the art itself is ultimately impressionistic in a way that defies that external logic. You can hang on by the skin of your teeth or the teeth of your skin, but you will never get it on some visceral level, even if your viscera responds. This can seriously fucking piss off viewers or readers, as evidenced by a lot of nasty, false-populist reviews like Rex Reed‘s for To The Wonder:

To the Wonder is the kind of fiasco that keeps film-festival programmers salivating and discriminating audiences stampeding toward the exit doors. It’s a simpering yawn that makes The Tree of Life seem like an action thriller with Bruce Willis. It is about … nothing.”

 

Which, look, I’m not going to say that To The Wonder is approachable or even worthwhile to a lot of people, nor am I going to say that those people are either idiots or “discriminating”, Rex. But it’s not about nothing. We’ve been hacking our way through Malick’s To The Wonder over months now, stopping for tirades from my husband – what is this shit? – and conversations with friends – hi, Eric! – about the individual, national and cultural response to a work that’s clearly, clearly, as much about personal mythos and national narrative as it is about, like, telling a story. There is no story that can tell me. There’s no story for anyone. It’s all memory or recording. My husband made peace with To The Wonder when he realized the film depicts all the interstitial moments – just after that conversation, just before that realization – a collection of boring connective moments that are the troughs between the high heights, the slack edge of feeling. But that’s an intellectual response, in the end, to a stark emotional landscape. That’s what we’ve got, I guess.

A lot of The Wind Rises bores me in the same way that To The Wonder does – these vistas where I consider the shape of the light or the angle of the sky more closely than I should, knocking myself out. Huh, you don’t see animated characters smoke anymore, and that smoke is gorgeous. Look at the ripples on the water. Look at the fluid dynamics of the clouds. But then there’s the moments that poleaxe me, like when Marina’s daughter asks her, “Why are you sad?” and she says, “I’m not sad.” There’s no reason on earth that should freak me out, but it does. The moment when I realized that all of the machine noises in The Wind Rises were made by people, which is occasionally funny and sometimes alarming. The 1923 Tokyo earthquake was made by human voices as well; yeesh.

It felt important to me that Hayao Miyazaki was born in January of 1941, about a month after Pearl Harbor, just weeks before my grandparents married and my grandfather enlisted in the Navy, which would send him to the South Pacific where he would encounter Jiro Horikoshi’s planes, at the very least in their effects. Miyazaki is not a Boomer but a War Baby, living through this profound upheaval as a pre-linguistic person; the war more a series of impressions and conversations remembered over dinner or around the doorjamb. I remember these times of my pre-personhood myself – Nixon impeached, the end of the Vietnam war – but I remember them more from my relationships with Viet and Hmong children who began peopling the elementary school, or the conversations overheard but not actually listened to, in the way of children, as my parents talked. Miyazaki is dealing with a part of his life that cannot be accessed through memory.

That The Wind Rises works best in its soaring, physics-defying dream sequences makes perfect sense to me, in this context: Miyazaki painting these watercolor vistas – like the landscapes Jiro’s wife paints en plein air during their courtship? The goofy, childish authorial voice of the Italian engineer intoning with its almost easily-dismissed gravitas as a bedtime story about the worst things there are, and the ugly, logical conclusions of the engineering war machine. There’s a lot of criticism of The Wind Rises because it never exactly owns the effects of Jiro’s engineering in the war effort, but then also some real anger in Japan about its pacifist message. I get the impression that a man of Miyazaki’s generation cannot win, in artistic portrayals of his generation and the gauzy childhood memories of the one before, a rock and a hard place of national narrative and the you lost mentality of the post-Allies. I’m aware of my dislocation as a viewer because I am not Japanese; here I felt the generational disconnect as well.

One of the things I noted as I watched was the strange convergence between Jiro Horikoshi’s marriage and the one between Richard and Arline Feynman when Feynman was working on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos. (The wiki article on Jiro has exactly zero about his personal life. I honestly don’t know how much Miyazaki bent here, in terms of life story, and it would be interesting indeed if this was fictional. Also, bearing in mind I’m getting most of my information about Feynman’s marriage from Feynman’s anecdotal memoirs and the film starring Matthew Broderick. I refuse to google, because on some level this has more to do with how biography is created than dreary facts.) The sick woman of Jiro’s wife is something of a thing in Miyazaki’s films, from the absent mother in My Neighbor Totoro to the boy in Arietty. The sequence where Jiro holds his wife’s hand while working slayed me, slayed me like the harsh breaths in Arietty. There’s a lot of his signature characters – the dwarfish superior played for comedy like the mean housekeeper in Arietty; Jiro’s sister who is so like Ponyo in her chubby, brutal girlishness, even when she is grown. I can see the war machines from Howl’s Moving Castle or the thrill of flight from Kiki’s Delivery Service.

The Jiro Horikoshi of the film has the same courtship as Feynman with a tubercular woman, a marriage despite filial objections, and the same divided loyalties as he works unceasingly and tirelessly for a dubious purpose.  The same dislocated relationship to the war effort – tangible, but indirect – the same lonely death of the wives. And the same transcendent belief of the unflinching beauty of their arts as they practice them. There is something wrong with the world that intellects like Feynman’s and Horikoshi’s are spent on things that florescence and then explode. “None of my planes came back,” Horikoshi tells his soul-body in the end. It is left to the viewer to see them driven to debris and the end. Feynman’s creation rains down on Japan in a hellfire. That Miyazaki inserts himself in a wand-breaking sequence like Prospero’s, the authorial acknowledgement that talent and mastery come to their end, hellfire or not, lends a tragic sweetness to the film. Is this the end? Does it have to be? Oh, God, no, please.

 

Ink by Amanda Sun

Ink by Amanda Sun has a cool set up: people with the power to make drawings – even calligraphy – come to life, and an unusual setting: modern Japan, with a mostly Japanese cast. Though the main character is a gaijin, all of the other important characters (discounting her aunt, who isn’t hugely important) are Japanese teenagers in a local school. Katie Greene has moved to Japan to live with an aunt after the death of her mother, and is just a couple of months into her time there. Her spoken Japanese isn’t great, though passable, and her kanji is bad. (Which is not a criticism; kanji is hard.)(And, I just quizzed a friend about living in Japan, and about the writing systems more generally, and I’m feeling pretty impressed about how difficult they are to master.)

I admit I was a little worried about this set up, because while the whole fish-out-of-water, new-girl-at-school trope can be a nice metaphor for more general teenage alienation (e.g. Twilight) or the dislocation of grief (e.g. Mac’s relocation to Ireland at the start of the Fever series after the death of her sister), sometimes this trope can fall into the whole exoticized other thing that’s either lazy at best, or racist at worst. I don’t actually have the background in modern Japanese teen culture to back up this statement, but I felt like Inkavoided this trap, and the Japanese cultural milieu wasn’t played as backdrop or stage-set. The depictions of the city and school systems were matter-of-fact and not romanticized, but with the short bursts of wonder, like the sequence with the cherry blossoms – beautiful! – that runs to a rainstorm and rotting petals in clumps. Foreign cities are sometimes really irritating for the new resident – I can’t read anything – but then they knock you down at the odd moment with their civic power. This book captured that well.

Katie is occasionally too quickly cognizant of when she makes a misstep – oh no, I just used the familiar, not the formal! or whatever – when I think the slightly later dawning horror of screwing up in an unfamiliar social system might have worked better overall. While the mystery of the magical drawings starts with a pretty tense situation – Katie is eavesdropping on an ugly break-up, by accident – that tension runs out pretty fast into the usual bad boy with a heart of gold and couple other dudes for a triangle-ish situation. Her friends get sidelined equally quickly, going from lifelines to bit characters and plot-expedience-devices. The aunt also exits stage right for the most part. The plot dissolves into a lot of prêt-à-porter angst, never really harnessing the real traumas of Katie’s backstory, and the magic ends up being a little dumb and convenient.

Which is frankly a crying shame. There was potential here for the magical ink to function as a grief mechanism, a dangerous and seductive escapism into the built-worlds of our desires, and Katie’s attraction to the bad boy could have been an expression of grief-fueled anger, the self-destructive grief tendency made manifest. But, nope. Katie is milquetoast and often drearily stupid, and her love interest’s vacillation between being a douche-bag and dreamy are obnoxiously obvious. Why is he pushing me awaaaaaay? Is it because of his feeeeeeelings? You think? Jesus. Katie should have just gone and made out with Tanaka, because he was funny and straight up. Jun and Tomo can take their angst and stuff it.

Which, I’ll admit, is my old talking here, and might not be a cogent criticism of a YA novel published by Harlequin Teen. But I’ve been schooled enough in both romance and YA to know that very interesting things can happen in those genres, especially when the dissociation of the paranormal is thrown into the mix. Especially when potent metaphors for the aliveness of writing is the basis. That this ended up being perfunctory and cliche is disappointing – yet another average-yet-special girl must choose between assholes – but it might not actually be surprising, all told, and at least it has a setting that I enjoyed.

Oh, and one last thing: I received this as an ebook from NetGalley – thank you! – and I was initially confused by the little drawings at the corners of the pages. The first third has these little petals in various formations, and then later a bird, etc. There are also larger pen drawings, usually illustrations of what the various characters were drawing. I did enjoy the full illustrations, which had a drippy, sketchy quality that was in line with the tone. I was perplexed by the smaller drawings – the petals, for example – which didn’t seem to correlate to scene breaks. It wasn’t until halfway through the bird drawings that I realized these must be planned as a flip-book, which is really cool design, one that works beautifully with the themes of the book. Good design that is totally lost in the ebook format. I have embraced ebooks – partially out of necessity, and partially out of expedience – but it behooves publishers to translate this paper-bound stuff to the electronic medium a little better. A YouTube video, an app: something should be linked at the end so we can experience this piece of the book that is just straight up nifty. Alas.

Unforeseen: Journey Through Rust and Ruin by Sarah Bartsch

I swear by all that is holy that I’m going to figure out how to punch the Goodreads search engine right in the freaking neck. Twice. Hard.

Why, you ask? (Or maybe you don’t, but uncaring bystanders are next on my list when my blood is up.)

Let me explain. 

It all started a couple years ago when my husband dragged me to Bubonicon so we could see his boyfriend and hang out with other nerds. Being a somewhat reticent girl – don’t let my shouting online fool you; I am naturally a homebody and an introvert – I was maybe not all that jazzed about this in the abstract. But it was pretty much like coming home, because nerds (or more importantly, bookish, writerly nerds) are my people. One of those people I met was Sarah, and she is absolutely one of my favorites. 

So, it was with some trepidation I picked up her novella, Unforeseen: Journey Through Rust and Ruin, because I know what a horrible bitch I am in reviews sometimes. And she knows that too, which makes this whole process a little awkward. Mostly I just don’t write reviews for friends’ books that I dislike – truth is beauty and all that, but we all gotta live on this globe, and friends are better than any critique. But – phew! – I honestly liked this. 

Miyako is a samurai-daughter in an alt-Japan, c. 1915. My Japanese history is a little furry, but it seems that the reforms instituted in the Meiji Restoration never happened, and samurai continued on into the run-up to the first world war, but spreading out to the gentry and merchant classes in a way your more daimyo types wouldn’t have particularly liked. Miyako is one of these: trained into a system of honor and warfare, but not exactly comfortable there because of her class and gender. This Japan, not unlike the real 1915 Japan, is isolated from Western technology, but worried about the war brewing. She is sent on a mission into one of the semi-magical portals managed by the military to scavenge technology from whatever she finds on the other side. 

She walks through the glowing door into a world of scorched air and bandits, a dome city and automata. Which, oorah. This is deeply fun stuff, the kind of play through harsh, alien environments by competent but still uncomfortable girls that turns my crank as a reader. Miyako blusters her way through an environment alien to her sensibility, managing to keep from goggling at cars and trains and showers, but just barely. I want to ride on one of those, she thinks, again, and again, about all the wonders that this more modern, but still alternate Japanese city provides. Which is why I love science fiction, when you get down to it: the barely held-down freak-out about all the very cool things we can imagine and then walk through, as readers. Miyako supplies wonder to even the terrible things in the harsh world she ends up in.

But here’s my problem: two alternate history Japans are a lot of alternate history Japans to manage in a novella. So I did some googling, and it turns out that Unforeseen is one of a number of shared world novel/las, which start with Gateway to Rust and Ruin. From the Empires of Steam and Rust website:

It is 1915, but not the one you know.

In Europe, the old empires stand on the brink of war, and war zeppelins darken the skies. In the East, China has spread its influence as far as the South American Coast, and may soon come into conflict with America, which has annexed Mexico, and is looking further south. But the plans of the great powers may all soon come to naught, for something new has come into the world.

On every continent, in every nation, holes have appeared, in the sky, in the ground, in the water, that seem to lead to another world. Some are no more than pin-pricks in reality. Some could swallow a battleship whole. Some seem to provide an instant conduit from place to place. A man entering one in Zurich might well come out another in the wilds of the Canadian Rockies an instant later. Others have no exit, and those who enter them are never seen again.

All are leaking.

Some emit strange gasses. Others birth weird animals and insects. Still others alter the environment around them in subtle, unsettling ways, and may eventually change the whole world.

Which, cool. I’m all in. I find the whole idea of shared world writing – where different authors bring their craft to a world with specific parameters – totally worthy. It’s such a friendly, personable way of writing fiction; a call and response between people who are often congenital introverts. But I would have really appreciated this introduction to the Steam & Rust world when I began reading Sarah’s story as some sort of preface or introduction. I am absolutely willing to sort all this stuff out on my own as a reader, and I did, but I admit my default is laziness.

So, you’re welcome, Steam & Rust readers. I went in and tried to make an Empires of Steam and Rust series on Goodreads, so you could see in in one place all of the shared world novel/las, but I ran into the absolute freaking shittiness of the Goodreads search function. Even though I was able to add three of the fictions, for some reasons Goodreads couldn’t cough up Revolution of Air and Rusteven though I can find the damn novella on a google search and it looks like Summers even did a godamn Goodreads giveaway. Double-you the actual fuck here? Why can’t Goodreads even see this novel? Rarrrrrrrrr, and then the throat punch.

Miyako makes her way through her adventure in her own alternate history with wit and some badass sword skills, learning the way the young often do that her world is more complex and crappy than she thought. Here’s my next criticism, and it’s the best one: I want more about her. Having established not one alt-Japan but two, and a set of characters and even a robot I admire, I would kill to see how this all plays out and what happens next. More, please, Sarah. <3