Recently I found out that I has missed the point of the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote "There are no second acts in American lives". I had always assumed that he was talking about about our inability to grant forgiveness to the fallen, but he wasn't. No, Fitzgerald was using the phrase "second act" in the theatrical sense, to describe our tendency to live life on a seesaw between extremes of success and failure. He was saying that America loves the boom and the bust, but not so much the build up.
This is certainly true of a lot of American-made movies about geniuses. For example, take A Beautiful Mind: as soon as Nash has an epiphany at the bar there's a cut and in the next scene his theory is fully fleshed out and his paper is fully written. The hard part was having the idea, but once that was done the work took care of itself - there was no stumbling blocks, or backtracking, or peer review.
The Wind Rises is a Japanese movie about a mechanical engineer, and it focuses on all of those details that get snipped out of American movies. The film follows Jiro Horikoshi as he tries to design some of Japan's earliest aircraft, and it follows his career up until World War Two, when his plane the Zero was used against the Allies. (It should be noted that the film actually doesn't have any scenes that are set in the war - it builds to the start of the war, cuts away, then ends in a dream sequence. Some critics thought that was a cop-out, since it evades tricky moral questions, but I understood why the film did that; this is a biography, not a war film.)
One day when Jiro is eating lunch he sees a fish bone and has an epiphany: he wants to curve the wings in a way that's never been done before. Then he goes back to his office and works on his design. His first version fails - but not because of a problem with his new wings. No, the problem is the machine shop, which isn't capable of making dependably sturdy engines. His second version is markedly better, but it's still not completely there, because it weighs too much. He has to figure out more places where he can trim the fat, even if that means taking a few ounces out of each strut, even if that means redesigning the bolts that hold the whole plane together.
The film's attention to detail can be beautiful, but it was also a bit hard for me to take at times. I don't entirely think this is the film's fault; I've probably been spoiled a bit by years of watching movies where every achievement occurs as if by magic. That said, the film's gentle pacing is legitimately kind of slow. There's no way to mark time in the story - the film isn't building towards any specific conclusion, and it doesn't ever signify how close or how far away Jiro is from achieving his goals. Events slowly roll out, as they tend to do in life. I can understand how that nuance would appeal to other people, but that kept the film from gelling for me. Every poignant scene would be followed up by something more mundane, and that regularly stalled the film's forward momentum.
That said, I do appreciate what the Wind Rises is trying to do: it's trying to show genius in it's actual form. No one has ever had a Eureka moment that was perfectly complete; there's always more tinkering, more polishing, more perfecting to be done. The Wind Rises is far more honest about this than most biographies I can think of. Perhaps its too honest about it. After all, as born and bred American I don't really know how to respond to a proper second act - much less a second act that stretches from the time the curtain rises till the curtain closes.