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Saturday, February 22, 2014

THE WIND RISES And The Problem With How We Weigh the Responsibility of Historical Fiction Films

Is it me or does it seem like every time Hollywood attempts a historical fiction piece, it comes under intense scrutiny by those who feel it doesn't accurately portray the factual story? Which I find fascinating, especially since some of these films open with a disclaimer that reads something along the lines of "based on a true story" or "inspire by real events." It's a particularly squeamish matter when it comes to stories that have racial or political themes (remember The Help and Django Unchained?).

What's perhaps most detrimental is when this consideration impedes our judgment of the film's quality (or, in some cases, lack thereof) and even its message. Which brings me to The Wind Rises, the Oscar-nominated animated film that's facing off against the Disney darling, Frozen. Most seem to be in favor of the latter winning, with much of the criticism towards Hayao Miyazaki's latest film lending to its somewhat contentious endeavor to avoid political agendas in order to focus on its key storyline. If you're unfamiliar with the movie, which opens nationwide next Friday (it's currently in limited release), you can refer to my review here.

While Miyazaki is quick to affirm that The Wind Rises dramatizes the story of Japanese WWII fighter plane engineer Jiro Horikoshi as it also incorporates elements of author Hori Tatsuo in the characterization, the film has still come under fire for its lack of confronting the complex politics and racial relations during the war. Which seems a bit unfair because a) the movie is mostly told in dream sequences, which should imply its more fantastical motives, b) it's told from the point of view of a young boy who's also struggling to interpret the complexities of war (his naivete and determined optimism evolves as he grows older), and c) it takes away from the movie's more profound themes of love, ambition and the power to overcome your own odds.

It's surely a complicated and expansive effort that Miyazaki takes on gracefully, even when he tilts the film's focus in its latter half. The politics of war, while minimized, are still present in the movie, providing the sufficient backdrop needed to elevate the objective of the film. In doing so, it offers a different image of the time that is rarely seen in film, from a fresh perspective. Which seems to be the problem we often run into when it comes to historical fiction pieces. While films like 12 Years a Slave are lauded for their valiant efforts to approach the era in its most authentic light, films like The Monuments Men that use a particular period as the scenery to tell a variation story are often received as weaker, more careless efforts.

But on that same token, these "truer" films are also a part of a growing complaint concerning what is seen as their repetitious nature in the Hollywood cycle. Questions concerning the amount of slavery or Holocaust dramas are then the next complaint. It's important to remember these eras in our history as they were with a new lens just as it's important to tell new stories about that time period--even if it means creating a compelling work of fiction that captures the era as it lifts a separate point of view (whether it be a romance, a comedy, or another genre). The idea shouldn't be to discard either of these artistic endeavors but to see them for the stories they aim to tell.

I'm sure the debate surrounding The Wind Rises will continue to go on--and perhaps even intensify--as we lead up to the Oscars next month, but it will be interesting to see what response the next historical fiction piece will draw from audiences. What makes certain historical fiction pieces significant or less so? What would you like to see from the genre moving forward? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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