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When The Wind Blows
(1986)
 

Director: Jimmy J. Murakami             
Cast:
Peggy Ashcroft, John Mills


Settled in one of those quiet countryside pockets of England where even in this day and age your nearest neighbor can be a mile or two away, you would think that married couple Jim and Hilda, who are starting to get on in years, would be facing a retirement filled with years of quiet and This book is da bombuneventful days. But life can take on unexpected turns; one day Jim comes home from town with some unexpected news after reading the newspapers at the library. After exchanging a few words with his wife about the day and his boring life, he hesitatingly informs his wife that things won't be the same for much longer - "It looks like there is going to be a war, dear."

So begins When The Wind Blows, an adaptation of British cartoonist Raymond Briggs' acclaimed comic novel. For those who may not immediately recognize the name, he has written and illustrated such popular works for children as The Snowman, Father Christmas (and its vacation-themed sequel), as well as Fungus The Bogeyman. Though he has also written books more geared to adults, not just the one that gave birth to this movie, including Gentleman Jim, and the Unlucky Wally series. Briggs was instantly a favorite of mine when I was a child, not just because his drawing style and use of glowing color captured my eye, but of his storytelling style. When I read his children's books years ago, I never thought he was talking down to his audience, which I appreciated. Yet at the same time, I found that he wrote his adult-oriented books in a style that made them accessible to children, should they choose to read them. When I read When The Wind Blows in elementary school, I understood it all - the attacks at war and government, the grisly humor, and that nuclear war would mean the end of us all.

It's a powerful book, and to properly adapt something like this for the silver screen needs not only great responsibility, but great care. The producers probably had some kind of idea like this, because Briggs himself wrote the screenplay. Though it was inevitable that a few scenes would get slightly trimmed in the transition, as well as some new material being introduced, virtually all of the book is preserved, with the characters doing and saying almost all the same things as they did in the book. Like in the book, Hilda is naive to modern-day warfare, commenting, "Well, if the worst comes to worse, we'll just have to roll up our sleeves, tighten our belts, and put on our tin hits 'til it's VE day again." Jim's equally nostalgic look towards his childhood during WW II also remains, and his grasp of nuclear technology is still illustrated by his comment, "You get terrific heat in these bombs."

The rest of the movie is equally faithful to the book, subsequently depicting Jim building a shelter to the specifications to the government leaflets that he places his faith in, How Hilda tells Jim she wants somewhile alternating between arguing with Hilda and trying to explain the world political situation and why he must mess up her house with activities like painting the windows white. It isn't long until a nuclear attack commences, and while taking refuge in their shelter, one missile from the attack lands several miles from their home. Despite the subsequent damage to their home, as well as communication from the outside world being totally cut off, both Jim and Hilda wait patiently for outsiders to come, and for the system to start repairing itself - not knowing what inevitably is to happen after a nuclear war.

Though I felt the movie was fairly well done overall, this kind of cluelessness that Jim and Hilda display towards their predicament was a factor that made my enjoyment of the movie less than it could have been. That's not to say that there isn't any of this in the book; even as a child,  I was a little annoyed that these two people could have no real idea what was happening to them. Though this feeling of mine increased when seeing the movie. Not because I was seeing it from a now adult perspective, but I was seeing the story played out in a new format. Even though their undying optimism was unbelievable in the book, I could almost believe it, because I was reading it in a comic format - it was obviously not real.

Yes, the movie is done with animation, but even then the characters become more "real" in front of our eyes than in a comic format. I could accept their behavior for the first half of the movie, with their not Seeing that the candle is being used, Jim realizes he'll now have to do his husbandly dutyknowing just how devastating a nuclear bomb can be, and even their feelings after the bomb drops that soon everything would be back to normal. But when later in the movie when you see these same characters assume that their bleeding gums, splotches on their skin, and their hair falling out is a consequence of getting old... well, it is exasperating when seeing them make these assumptions while they are "alive" in front of you; you want to grab and shake some sense into them. I simply could not believe that anyone could be so dense as to not realize from these signs that something was seriously wrong with them.

Though I am glad for the most part that Briggs stuck to his book, I wish that he had a better idea of the fact that when translating another medium into a feature film format, some things cannot work exactly as they did in the other medium. This brings up another fault I found in the translation, though Briggs is not to blame for this one. Maybe I have some bias because I have read the book, but I didn't find the dialogue for the most part to be delivered in a manner that sounded natural enough. No, I don't mean that Ashcroft and Mills deliver their lines badly - their voices sounded right for these characters. What I mean is that director Murakami edits all their takes together so that these characters often speak in a rat-tat-tat manner. These are older and slower characters, so hearing them speak for long periods without stopping to think, exhale a sigh, or to take a break doesn't sound right. You can imagine this natural breaks while reading the book, they needed to be injected in when this dialogue is spoken out loud.

Despite all of this, the characters of Jim and Hilda - the heart of the movie - remain very likable. Even though they may not be very well informed about the modern world, they are the kind of quiet and friendly people you would like to have as next-door Jim learns the hard way as to why you should never rent to college studentsneighbors. They are two people who have much affection for each other. Even though we see them have a lot of disagreements, there is never a sense that they feel any malice towards the other; they accept each other despite the differences. Scenes of them directly giving affection to the other are not often seen, but we still sense their love for each other, such as the touching scene when they come across one last blackcurrant candy. And though their misunderstanding of things does eventually become hard to swallow, early on in the movie it gives them a sweet charm as well as some humor - some of it black. When the couple goes outside after the bomb drops and Hilda comments that the burning smell she senses is "Like roast meat," Jim responds with, "I expect people are having their Sunday dinners early this week due to the unexpected circumstances."

Another element that remains preserved from the transition from book to film
is its political agenda. Not just its criticism of nuclear armament, but for the fact that any government could suggest to its citizens that survival and normalcy can be achieved after a nuclear strike. This is primarily shown with the government-issued survival leaflets that Jim places his faith in, though even he seems puzzled by the contradictions he finds, and that the inane activities the leaflets suggest don't seem to work when he tries them himself. In fact, I would say that the movie actually manages to improve on the book in depicting a post-holocaust world. For one thing, the movie shows a lot more of the destruction than the book, depicting the house as more trashed and discolored, as well as painting the countryside an unbelievably grim color during the scene when Jim and Hilda venture outside. The most effective sequence showing the destruction is when the bomb actually drops, depicted in a sepia-toned sequence showing the destruction of cars, trains, houses, and even animals.

The animation doesn't have the budget or the slick Disney style, but it manages to be effective all the same. It uses a technique seldom used since the Max Fleischer days - building small table-top sets, and placing the animation cels between the set and the camera. The results give the "Amazing how hot it is today when the clouds are so dark..."movie a very pleasing kind of 3D quality, one that doesn't distract the viewer from the action; each set has been painstakingly modeled to fit with Briggs' artistic style (which, of course, is used with the hand-drawn characters.) The only criticisms I have with the actual animation and its presentation is that occasionally it doesn't look that bright enough. Yes, we are talking about nuclear-scorched scenery, but even then some details seem to be unnecessarily dark and murky. (Some of this may come from the quality of the print used for the video - there's signs that a fresh print wasn't used.) As well, the animation with Jim's head looks bland and hard for the eye to focus on for the most part, though Briggs' conception of Jim's head was really designed for the printed page, not animation.

When The Wind Blows is a very fine movie, though it's a movie that really needed to go that extra mile. As a message movie dealing with such serious subjects, it really should have had a more emotional kick to it (though it does start to approach this during the final sequence), and left you with some kind of unshakable feeling that what you saw was too awful to happen to anyone. As a matter of fact, there is another animated war movie that, though not about nuclear war, delivers many of the same messages as this movie. It's called Grave Of The Fireflies, and it's not only one of the best animated movies ever made, it delivers its messages in a much more effective manner. Its impact is just what When The Wind Blows should have had.

Check for availability on Amazon (VHS)
Check for availability of soundtrack on Amazon (CD)
Check Amazon for availability of the original Raymond Briggs comic novel

See also: Barefoot Gen, No Blade Of Grass, Tycus

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