American Film

What's your favorite film? Is there a movie that changed your life? Send us an essay of 500 words, give or take, about that film you can't forget – classic or contemporary – and we'll consider it for publication in these pages. In addition to your short essay, send your name, occupation, hometown, phone number, jpeg headshot and e-mail address to We reserve the right to edit for length and clarity.


By Peter DiCicco

Peter DiCicco is a writer, currently working at Nickelodeon Animation Studio.

I have always loved animation, even before considering a career in it. I grew up on Disney cartoons and the Don Bluth films of the '80s. I even recall flipping through my father's copy of "The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation" by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston (mostly because I liked the frame-by-frame pictures of Pinocchio on the cover, but I still love that book).

My first exposure to Hayao Miyazaki was in film school when PRINCESS MONONOKE was released in the U.S. It was both familiar and yet like nothing I had ever seen before. The story – about Prince Ashitaka's quest to lift the curse that a demon had put on him – was clear enough, but the characters were not easily categorized as "good" or "evil." From the outcast workers of a mining town creating guns to the boar gods furious at the humans destroying their forest to the human girl raised by wolf gods, every character had complex motivations and actions.

Miyazaki has an uncanny ability to show us a beautiful world while simultaneously showing all the cracks underneath. To me at the time, MONONOKE did not feel like animation. It felt more cinematic somehow, and yet it achieved visuals that were impossible for a live action film. After experiencing it, I started to have a deeper appreciation for animation.

My education in film introduced me to Kurosawa, Fellini, and Truffaut, even as I continued to delve into the beautiful, haunting worlds of Miyazaki. As visually distinct as his films are, the characters are just as strong. They almost always go through a kind of spiritual quest, often as a contrast to a more "modern" technological world – the young witch trying to make her way in the world in KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE, the girls who befriend forest spirits while they worry for their sick mother in MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO, Ashitaka in MONONOKE who finds himself in the middle of a war between the gods of the forest and human settlers of an industrialized town.

THE WIND RISES (KAZE TACHINU), which screened at AFI Fest, is another masterful work of animation. It is loosely based on the life of Jiro Horikoshi, an aeronautical engineer and designer of Japanese fighter planes, including the Mitsubishi Zero, which flew during World War II. It contains much of Miyazaki's signature style and continues this theme of a character's spiritual quest and the cost of its pursuit.

We are introduced to Jiro as a young boy who dreams about fantastic airplanes and flying through the clouds. Jiro is nearsighted and wears glasses, so he can never fly a plane in real life, but he soon learns that he has a mind for designing planes. We see Jiro's knack for engineering as it unfolds in his mind, the wind lifting the wings as they strain against their supports. And we see the design fail as the wind tears the plane apart. It is a simple but effective visual that gets us into Jiro's mind, and when his gruff and hilariously diminutive supervisor calls him a genius, we believe it.

One of the more lovely and poignant sequences comes when Jiro is staying at a hotel and attempting to romance the love of his life Naoko, who is suffering from tuberculosis. Since she is quarantined and their only interaction can be in the great distances between balconies, Jiro builds a small model plane and attempts again and again to toss it up to her balcony. The animation perfectly captures the sense of gravity and wind, and we can see exactly why Jiro loves aviation so much.

In his dreams, Jiro meets Italian engineer Caproni, a spiritual guide of sorts as well as a real life inspiration. These dream sequences contain Miyazaki's signature whimsy, punctuated by tragedy, as the joy of soaring above the clouds on these dream machines is interrupted by the impending doom of war and destruction that will be brought by the aircraft Jiro is designing.

THE WIND RISES is reported to be Hayao Miyazaki's final film, and it displays a sense of finality, of someone looking back at their life choices and their impact. Though I personally hope this is not to Miyazaki's last, it is a masterful piece of filmmaking worthy of comparison to any live-action historical epic, and it certainly deserves a place of honor among Miyazaki's long list of great works.

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