Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Anime I can get behind

A couple weeks ago in this space I wrote that anime doesn't have a huge amount to offer me.

And then I saw Grave of the Fireflies.

I'd heard the movie discussed in film circles with the highest levels of praise, and I'd also heard how it was supposed to be very, very sad. But a part of me didn't trust that this praise wasn't coming from people whose other favorite movies are Akira and Princess Mononoke.

Still, after hearing another breathless mention of it about a week ago, I decided to promote it to the top of my queue. I watched it on Saturday night.


In case you don't know the plot, Grave of the Fireflies is about two Japanese children who become homeless orphans in the waning days of World War II after their house burns and their mother is killed during Allied bombing strikes. The boy, 14-year-old Seita, serves as a de facto parent to the girl, 4-year-old Setsuko. They try to forge their way through an uncaring world dominated by individuals, even family members, who are forced to look out for themselves first. Making matters more melancholy, we know from the very beginning that things don't turn out well for at least one of the kids. The film starts with narration from Seita in which he gives the date September 21st, 1945, and says "This is the day I died."


As I sat there, gobsmacked, watching this movie, I naturally considered why it worked so well for me, while other anime movies generally do not. Here is some of what I came up with:

1) The animation is simple yet beautiful. One of my complaints in my February 17th post was that anime seems to be technologically stunted; anime released today does not look significantly better than anime released 25 years ago. Grave of the Fireflies was actually released 24 years ago, and it looks great. Some of the backdrops are rich and beautiful, and some of the imagery is perfectly elegiac in its simplicity. (I'm thinking of this one shot of a burst water pipe that kind of transfixed me.) But I think the age of the movie freed me up from worrying about perceived technical deficiencies and allowed me to just get lost in the story. Which I did.

2) The emotions are generally muted. A standard complaint I have about anime is that the line readings are incredibly unsubtle, either for melodramatic or comic effect. You'd think a movie about children starving as they steer clear of bombs and corpses would have a high melodrama factor, but Grave of the Fireflies does not. In fact, pretty much everything is underplayed and understated, making it all the more effective. When real emotion does creep in, it's totally earned.

3) It's grounded in reality. One thing I realized as I was watching this movie is that most anime involves some sort of fantastical element. This is not always a bad thing, and can in fact be a very good thing. But it definitely sets certain expectations and can strain narrative logic if not done well. Grave of the Fireflies is totally and utterly realistic. It's about human beings in real-world conditions, and could have easily been shot live action. Except then I don't think the effect would be quite as powerful.

4) It's not intended for kids. I've already told you that the kids' mother dies, so I'm not really spoiling anything more if I tell you how. You don't see how she initially becomes injured, but you do see her in a makeshift hospital, covered from head to toe in bandages with blood seeping through in various spots. From the first time you see her in this state, you know there's no way she's surviving. And in fact, the next time you see her, her bandaged body is being trucked out to be burned, covered in maggots. That's hardcore. As an aside, there's a great red herring related to her character. In the opening scene before the bombing, when they're all headed off to a bomb shelter, Seita asks her if she has her heart medication. She says she does. You expect this to come into play later in the story, but the nature of her injuries entirely removes her heart from the realm of her concerns.

Anyway, yeah. You should see it.

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