The Wind Rises is the type of art film that typically speeds into the Oscar race.
By BROOKS BARNES
The New York Times
Critics at film festivals swooned over its nuance. It delivers messages about turbulent modern times by examining traumatic events of the past. The films 72-year-old director and writer, Hayao Miyazaki, a cinematic giant, has said the ambitious animated picture will be his last, a final bow.
Instead, The Wind Rises entered the Oscar competition on tiptoe.
The film, a box-office smash in Japan with ticket sales of $120 million, played in New York and Los Angeles for one week last year, the minimum release time a movie can receive and still be eligible for the Academy Awards. A Hollywood producer who has taken the film under his wing, Frank Marshall, declined an interview request. The movies distributor, Walt Disney Studios, is also stepping carefully.
One explanation for the sensitivity? Although The Wind Rises has a strong pacifist message, it is essentially a biopic of Jiro Horikoshi, an aeronautical engineer whose contribution to the world was a killing machine. His designs led to the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter, which was used to devastating effect during World War II.
Miyazakis film, which is aimed at adults, also features at least eight scenes in which characters smoke cigarettes. That imagery, while historically correct, stirred controversy in Japan because of its potential impression on young viewers and could prompt an even louder reaction in North America, where animation is seen to a much greater degree as a product for children.
The main worry is that people will make a judgment about the film before they see it, said Fran Krause, a professor of character animation at California Institute of the Arts. There is a lot of subtlety to Miyazakis work, and this film in particular will require a lot of benefit of the doubt that people these days dont often have.
Geoffrey Wexler, the international chief at Studio Ghibli, the Tokyo studio for which Miyazaki was a co-founder in 1985, expressed similar concerns in a telephone interview.
People have agendas, and its easy to use this film as your own, Wexler said.
Despite its antimilitary message, for instance, The Wind Rises has been denounced in South Korea as a celebration of Japans wartime aggression. Miyazaki and his film have meanwhile been criticized as unpatriotic by some conservatives in Japan, where the prime minister, wary of Chinas rise, has pushed for a constitutional revision that would allow for a more muscular military.
Wexler said the film should be seen primarily for what it is a love story, between two people and between a creator and his invention.
Its may be a little bit corny, but he just wanted to design something beautiful, Wexler said, referring to the Zero engineer. He couldnt pick the era he lived in.
Asked if lingering wartime tension could nonetheless sway Oscar voters, many of whom are older, Wexler said, People who have been directly affected will have a more acute sensitivity.
Ultimately, however, the films backers believe there will be little to no effect.
Because of the smoking and other difficult imagery animated bombs, a tuberculosis epidemic Disney is releasing The Wind Rises at arms length. A dubbed version of the movie, set for limited release in the United States and Canada on Friday, is distributed on Disneys Touchstone Pictures label. Miyazakis previous three movies, including Spirited Away (2002), which won the Oscar for best animated film, were released in North America under the flagship Disney logo.
Dave Hollis, Disneys distribution chief, said in a statement that the studio is honored to bring Miyazakis latest film to domestic audiences. Disney has had a distribution relationship with Studio Ghibli for 16 years. By easing this darker picture into the Oscar race, Disney secured a best animated film nomination that it has used as a marketing hook with audiences. Miyazakis work tends to struggle in North America, even with celebrities providing the English dubbing.
Indeed, just getting seen by ticket buyers and voters alike could be the biggest challenge for The Wind Rises, awards strategists say. Critics have praised the films nuanced handling of Japanese history and raved about its rural vistas and delicate pastel color palette. But some film buffs have winced at its length: 126 minutes. There is a long sequence about rivets.
To that end, a little controversy might actually help the film, said Don Levy, a former awards strategist for Sony Pictures and a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
To a certain extent, controversy sparks interest and curiosity, he said. I also trust voters. They can love or hate or have feelings toward a subject and still evaluate its artistic merit.
Serious films have slipped into Oscars animation category before; Persepolis, about a girl coming of age in Iran at the onset of the Islamic Revolution, was nominated in 2008. But Levy, now an independent media consultant, noted that the Academy Award for best animated film has always gone to a child-friendly contender. Brave won last year. Frozen is the one to beat this year.
On the plus side, he said, campaigners for The Wind Rises can waive the legacy flag: Dont miss your last chance to honor Miyazaki.
Ive created a stir several times before by saying that Ill quit, but this time Im serious, Miyazaki said at a Sept. 6 news conference in Tokyo, citing his age and failing eyesight.
Krause of CalArts noted Studio Ghibli has a history of tackling extremely serious topics. Grave of the Fireflies was a grim 1988 film from the company about two starving children in postwar Japan.
I guess the difference is that, when it comes from a major director, it can still be a big surprise, Krause said.