Saturday, February 19, 2011

Movie vs. Book: When the Wind Blows

Director: Jimmy T. Murakami
Cast: John Mills and Peggy Ashcroft

In the 80s there were a ton of nuclear war movies, and they all seemed to fall into two categories: the Day After, where they focused on the destruction and the big booms, and the Grave of the Fireflies that focused more on people’s reactions more than the actual war. When the Wind Blows falls into the second category.

Where Fireflies focused on the aftermath through the eyes of children, When the Wind Blows (another animated feature) follows an elderly couple in the moments before and the days after a bomb is dropped on England. They are like any other happily but long wed couple that often bicker and often irritate but deeply and truly adore each other. Almost half of the movie takes place before the bomb goes off. They spend their time preparing for the upcoming war, trying to follow the directions in a pamphlet the man got from the government. Figuring they’ve survived World War 2, the couple believe the nuclear bomb will be little more than a nuisance. They go about their business cleaning, calling their grown son, with a thought here and there toward preparing their little shelter in the cellar. Then the inevitable happens, and the second half is dedicated to their reaction to the devastation left to their little country home and eventually the devastation of their health.

I’m not sure how much credit I can give director Jimmy Murakami, considering how much was taken directly from the graphic novel. The simplistic design of the characters is exactly how they looked on the page, and it is so painfully effective. It reminds you of an innocent children’s book and they ever-optimistic attitude of the couple only intensify that. That eventual destruction of the innocents is heartbreaking. Where I can give Murakami credit is the first half. He expanded the set-up beyond what Briggs did with the graphic novel, making you feel like you know the couple and subtly sucking your emotions in. The reason the movie and its ending work is because, within that hour twenty minutes, you’ve come to adore the characters so much that the ending you can see coming a mile away still hits you deeply. I was somewhat surprised at how well Murakami worked with the quiet affection of the couple, considering two movies he made before this were Battle Beyond the Stars and Humanoids of the Deep.

The movie is not without flaws, mainly the fact you can see where the story will go long before it heads there. That, in a major way, is the fault of the genre. Post-nuclear movies are not made with happy endings in mind, especially in the eighties. They were meant to scare you into despising nuclear war. Most people aren’t exactly thrilled at the thought of the bomb and those who are probably won’t be watching these movies in the first place to get that message. And the characters sometimes behave in rather unrealistic ways in order to accentuate their naiveté. I can see the reason for doing this, but when you have characters whose relationship is so realistic, anything that feels unnatural is exaggerated.

You will not gain anything new by watching When the Wind Blows. But as long as you know that going into it, you’re free to savor the sometimes sweet and terribly heartbreaking little flick. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m predisposed to enjoy an animated feature, especially one not made to sell toys to children. But even without that factor, this movie is a true winner if you’re looking for a sad and slightly frightening film.



WHEN THE WIND BLOWS by Raymond Briggs
This book was produced in 1982, at the height of the cold war. It introduces you to an elderly couple, allows you insight into their respective personalities, and then drops a nuclear bomb on them.
Not that you ever actually see the bomb. And "see" is the right term here, because the book is completely illustrated in what has become the contemporary graphic novel format. The reader never sees the bomb, never sees any other people besides the couple, and only through the effects of the dropped nuke do we get to see things fall apart for the lovable yet ignorant pair.
It was produced as an anti-war book, and I can imagine it might have been very effective as such. Personally, I merely found it a sad fantasy with its feet firmly grounded in horror. That, I believe, should be - and is - enough to strongly recommend it.
It is dated by its own politics, which is depressing because the story is still timely. Even if the cold war isn't raging, the possibility of a nuclear attack still lingers in most countries throughout the world. When taken as the story of an elderly couple dying prematurely due to radiation sickness, it's at its best. The attempts at humor mostly fall flat, such as bringing up the notion of Mutual Assured Destruction after the bombs have dropped... even though that policy, if correct, would have prevented any bombs from being launched. Big laughter ensues from the audience.
The humor felt to me as if it were either targeting the perceived ignorance of average people or heavy-handed attempts to criticize the British government for suggesting that anyone try to prepare for a possible bomb strike instead of admitting that all Britishers were done for if disarmament didn't happen. The first seems petty, the second was demonstrably wrong. And that results in a book which is visually pretty and interesting if read in a historical context, but which only really works best as science fiction - the horror of an alternate history where a truly unlikely but terrible event has taken place.
Four stars out of five.

--Bill Lindblad