Insights & Art

Straight from the dome to the plate.

Tag: Animation

The Collapse of Tradition

“IS THE GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES AN ANTI-WAR FILM?”

Animation produces emotional effects not by reproducing reality, but by heightening and simplifying it.
                                                                                          – Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert famously hailed Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no Haka) as one of the greatest anti-war films ever created. Since its initial release this animated classic, directed by Isao Takahata, has been associated with the dangers of militarism and the dehumanising effects of war. As Takahata and author Akiyuki Nosaka were both victims of American firebombings, there are certainly elements of pacifism which underscore the duration of the film. However it seems the real battlefield is the Japanese home front, and it is these rules and expectations which Seita and Setsuko have to navigate. The war is arguably just a trigger to explore the self-inflicted cannibalisation of Japanese society and the disintegration of ie.

Throughout many interviews Takahata has maintained that the target audience was the younger generation of the 1980s, and this film was often used as an educational video within schooling institutions. Importantly, this was also the first generation that the horrors of WWII were just figments of the past and not actual lived experiences. The importance of this shift in the public consciousness and why Takahata so outwardly addresses the youth in the film will be explained further on.

The audience is abruptly thrown into a narrative where Japan is at war, neither the enemy or the cause of this conflict is discussed. It is as if Takahata is suggesting that such details are irrelevant compared to the fact this simply forces Japanese society to change and adapt to such circumstances. Takahata does not portray the Americans as the antagonist and the Japanese as helpless casualties of foreign aggression; as most traditional anti-war films would. Paradoxically it seems it is the Japanese who are both the oppressors and the victims. The ideals of uchi and soto are dismantled as the traditional markers of Japanese identity and tribalism are abandoned in the name of self-preservation.

This is immediately highlighted in the introduction of the film, the suffering of Seita and other orphans are contrasted to the rest of Japanese society. Their decrepit statute and stationary positions accentuate the fanatic (and interestingly directionless) movement of their fellow Japanese. As if an entire generation and their memory was discarded when Japan rose to the economic powerhouse it was in the 1980s.

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However, the most obvious scene of social criticism appears near the end of the film when three Japanese girls return to their wealthy home, excitedly exclaiming “It’s so good to be home… It hasn’t changed a bit.” Whilst initially it can be seen as an optimistic comment about the future of Japan, that fact it immediately follows after the passing of Setsuko paints these adolescents as callous and ignorant.

It is clear that from their western attire and their association with western technology (phonograph) that these girls are supposed to be the representations of the Japanese youth in 1980s; opulent and painfully oblivious. The proximity of the house to the caves that Seita and Setsuko lived in, is a metaphor that underneath the economic boom of the decade lie the painful memories of loss and defeat. It is not the Allied soldiers who are presented as indifferent to the suffering of the Japanese, but rather the Japanese themselves.

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In a very eye opening interview Takahata states that one of his original goals was to ‘depict the boy as a contemporary boy, rather than a boy in that time.’ It is with this new found knowledge that one must address the film and see Seita’s actions as not just as personal decisions but rather a mirroring of the ideals and values held by the Japanese youth of the 1980s.

In one of the opening scenes of the film, Seita carries Setsuko upon his back trying to find his way to the bomb shelter. However, during this journey, Seita pauses and the camera spends an usually long time lingering upon a bucket, ladder and pool; tools used to fight fires. Torn between giri and ninjo, Seita chooses to flee towards safely. Almost immediately afterwards, as if an act of divine retribution, the houses around him explode into an uncontrollable blaze of fire and the skies immediately darken. Symbolically, it would seem the reason why the city of Kobe fell to the fire was not because of the American bombings, but rather an embrace of kojinshugi over ie.

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Seita’s fire brigade uniform, iconic of Japan’s fashion during WWII serves not only to connect him towards the school attire of his modern day contemporaries, but also as a constant reminder of his failure to fill his obligation. Throughout the film as Seita becomes ever more removed from ie and the community, his uniform begins to disintegrate off his body. Yet in death, Seita’s uniform is restored, serving as an ominous warning that he (and the audience) will never be able to shake off their responsibilities to the nation, invoking some of the more fatalistic elements of Bushido.

Noting how consumerism has weakened the pillars of Japanese tradition, Takahata continues his criticism by stating ‘[Seita] doesn’t bear with hardships. When the aunt threatens him by saying “Let’s have our meals separately” he is relieved’… As a result, his life becomes harder. Such is the feelings held by today’s kids.’

The consequences of isolation is juxtaposed to the prior scene of surprising optimism as Seita rummages through his destroyed home and symbolically bathes in water spouting from a burst pipe. In a traditional anti-war film, this scene of returning to a destroyed community would have been a moment of intense emotional pain, yet Seita seems almost unreactive to the destroyed infrastructure. Seita and Setsuko may have lost their mother but they were still on good terms with their auntie, and thus the family unit survived: Japanese society was still adhering to its traditions, even after experiencing such causalities.

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The question must be asked, why Takahata was so intensely focused on having his film connect with the Japanese youth of the baburu keiki. The 1970s and 80s, falls into what sociologist Osawa Masachi terms as ‘kyoko no jidai’ or roughly translated as the ‘age of fiction’, a period marked by a public shift on tradition. Whilst the 1960s and 70s (or riso no jidai; ‘age of idealism) aimed to change society from within established perimeters. The period of Kyoko no jidai, fuelled by an explosion of capitalism combined with the radicalisation of leftist politics saw a desire to reimagine society completely, without adherence to past traditions. It is from within this context of cultural change from which Grave of the Fireflies emerges.

“… But [the youth’s] often nihilistic attitude combined with an aggressive materialism stand in distinctive contrast to their parent’s values.”
                                                                                         – Susan Napier

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(Nakanishi, 2003)

The post war years of 1979 to 1993 saw a steep rise in crime rates of juveniles, simultaneously followed by a dramatic increase in juvenile arrests. And it this troubled generation of Japanese delinquents which was the target audience of Grave of the Fireflies. The desire to rein the youth is expressed in Takahata’s comments; “Just like today’s junior high students, a 14-years old looks unemotional or grumpy.” Such comments leave very little room when it comes to addressing the objective of this film.

This is not to say that Grave of the Fireflies completely neglects to condemn war , but instead that its main focus is a close inspection on the Japanese character in times of trial. One of the most powerful scenes condemning militarism occurs after the fire bombings have ended and both Seita and Setsuko were able to escape (not with the rest of society at the shelters but rather to a sewer reminiscent of their eventual ‘ukiyo’). A hellish montage of soldiers and civilians dying is followed by a lone male feverishly screaming “Long Live the Emperor”. Situated amongst the backdrop of a burning building; his overly zealous rhetoric is the fan which fuels the self-immolation of Japanese society.

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However, in the scene above, one could just as easily interpreted it as an anti-war message or as a cautionary warning against Japanese society being swept up by the tides of far right politics. Tellingly, both Seita and Setsuko die after WWII concludes, during a period where Americans had ‘officially’ become an ally, and peace had technically been reinstated. One must question if Grave of the Fireflies is at its core an anti-war film, as it spends so much time addressing the consequences of social decisions and not exploring the horrors of international war.

This criticism of the Japanese youth is reflected in two highly emotional scenes where both Seita and Setsuko break the fourth wall and communicate directly to the audience. In the scene directly after Seita and Setsuko’s last encounter with the fireflies and the pleasant idylls of nature, Seita walks outside the cave to see Setsuko crouching in the dirt. Setsuko starts crying as she begins to bury the fireflies and in a highly emotional moment asks “Why do fireflies have to die so soon?” It is important to not only note her words but the manner in which this dialogue is conveyed. The linear narrative of the story is broken and the camera shifts to a point of view shot of Setsuko’s teary face; positioning the audience as the recipient of her question.

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Analysing the exact definition of what fireflies symbolise in this piece of work is rather difficult as they cover such a large myriad of ideas. But by immediately injecting flashbacks of Seita’s and Setsuko’s mother being thrown into a ditch, combined with the previous mention that ‘[a kamikaze plane] looks like a firefly.’ I believe that Setsuko’s question forces audience to confront why they have forgotten the memories of the fallen victims, relegating their sacrifices to pointless events along the spectrum of Japanese history. Did their suffering have any meaning and if not, then why not?

This is reinforced by the following scene, which is arguably one of the most manipulative within the entire film. A wave of intrusive Japanese children carelessly trespass on the caves that Seita and Setsuko lived in. After such a powerfully emotional scene just moments prior, the audience cannot but see their ignorance as anything but problematic. Regarding the previous example of the Japanese girls returning to their house, it is highly telling that Takahata constantly uses ignorant children as the symbol of those untouched by war.

Arguably the cause of Seita and Setsuko’s demise isn’t the war as apart from the opening scenes of the film, the audience is never again shown the graphic consequences of conflict. Likewise, Takahata portrays Japanese society as still intact after its surrender at the concluding moments of the film. In the scenes when Seita tries to buy charcoal for his sister’s funeral, there is an unusual amount of sunlight present and the farmer seems oddly optimistic, noticeably different to the feelings of the Seita and the audience. As someone who previously advised Seita to return to his auntie, this farmer stands as the ideological opposite to Seita, someone who did not abandon his station, even during turmoil. Life as a Japanese farmer and as a cog in the Japanese system continues, even in the face of defeat.

Likewise, Seita’s compliance in the selling of his mother’s kimonos is also used as a metaphor for the self-cannibalisation of Japan from within. In complete disregard for his mother’s memory and filial piety, Seita trades in a symbol of Japanese femininity and motherhood for instant gratification. The camera then pans to the ghost of Seita covering his ears and horrified by this ultimately pointless decision, as the children die anyway, and paradoxically due to a lack of parental care. This act is symbolic because it marks the start of the pair’s divorce from any forms of familial relationship, their relationship with their auntie rapidly decays afterwards: Seita’s pride and Setsuko’s willingness to follow her brother have made them orphans both literally and spiritually.

The final scene of this film however is arguably the most insightful look into the intentions of Takahata’s when directing this film. Having failed to receive proper Buddhist or Shinto burial rites, both Seita and Setsuko return as spirits, they’re marginalised on the outskirts of the city; disconnected to the wealth of the city. As Setsuko lays her head on her brother’s lap and the main theme begins to crescendo, Seita breaks the fourth wall and gives the audience an accusatory stare.

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Slowly the camera pans upwards, and the fireflies; symbols of the kamikaze pilots, Seita’s mother and other countless forgotten Japanese victims are drowned out by the overwhelming lights of Kobe. As audiences, it is not hard to see this futuristic city as the stark contrast to the poverty and suffering of those caught in WWII. Once again the question is asked whether or not the stories of the older generation have been forgotten, and if so then why? Nosaka’s words captures this sense of tension and discomfort with the rapidly changing Japan; “… High-rise buildings and super-highways were once just futuristic dreams… [I] cannot help but see them amidst sunlit ruins,” echoing a real fear that Japan will forget its past.

Perhaps the most conclusive proof regarding the stance of Grave of the Fireflies is found in Takahata’s continued insistence that “[The film] is not at all an anti-war anime and contains no such message.” Whilst Takahata and Nosaka’s played large roles in shaping what this film eventually became, it is fair that audiences should have the right to interpret this film however they wish. Nor does this essay wish to diminish Roger Ebert’s remarks that this film “involves war, the results of war and two victims of war.”

However, to insist that the film Grave of the Fireflies was created with a strict anti-war theme at its heart is rather dubious. I see this film as an attempt to bridge the generational gap between those who experienced and those untouched by Japan’s darkest days. Grave of the Fireflies doesn’t so much push an anti-war message but rather one cautioning against the abandonment of communal values. The fact that this story starts and ends with the death of the protagonist suggest that bloodshed, like the defeat of Japan in 1945, is unchangeable. Yet it is how a culture remembers their past which demonstrates what direction they will take in the future.

Summer Wars – Review

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[AS SPOILER FREE AS POSSIBLE FOR A REVIEW]

[KOI-KOI MOTHER FUCKERS]
(however you play that game…)

If there is one picture that could sum up this film it would be this picture; the typical family, a single unit with its many quirks and personalities, all with unique character traits, imperfections and values that is found every time a large number of people unite. Summer Wars, directed by Mamoru Hosada and animated by Madhouse is one of my favourite animated films, whilst I can hardly be quoted as an authoritative source on Japanese animation, Summer Wars‘ heart warming message and plot ensures an entertaining watch for basically all demographics. If reading long articles is something you struggle with, then let me briefly give you my thoughts on this film; watch it. Watch it if you want a casual tale embedded with genuine warmth and sincerity, watch it if you want to explore a loving family whose connection to each other will touch you deeply.

The film starts with Natsuki asking our typical goofy, socially awkward high school student Kenji to accompany her to her elderly grandmother’s (Sakae Jinnouchi) 90th birthday; Kenji whilst reluctant at first eventually decides to accompany her and that’s when the chaos ensues. When the pair finally arrives, Natsuki informs Kenji that his mission is to pretend to be her boyfriend, Kenji is very hesitant and only after some pleading, does he accept. Following this he’s introduced to Natsuki’s family members, the Jinnouchi family equipped with the family staples… The drunk uncle that tends to discuss ‘taboo’ subjects after six drinks, the motherly aunties and the awkward younger cousin who just began his teenage internet rebellion phase, opting for online over physical communication. Kenji who repeatedly tells the audience that his only skill is mathematics receives an anonymous encryption during the middle of the night… And like any sane person, he decides to spend the next few hours deciphering it. From then on madness accumulates like a rolling snowball, as a mysterious virus ironically and ‘threateningly’ named ‘Love Machine’ begins to destroy the digital world which is heavily intertwined to the physical. Not only does Kenji have to juggle the complicated web of family affairs, his sense of guilt compels him to combat this deadly virus who threatens the social fabric of modern Japan.

Whilst I may of given this away in my previous paragraphs, the most endearing and likable aspect of this film was the family, it felt realistic and fluid and every time I saw little children screaming in unison or the mothers giggling amongst themselves it instantly triggered a deeply buried memory in my head. Audiences may point to the lack of a protagonist as a key flaw within this story and I will admit, I really wanted the story to focus upon the budding relationship between Natsuki and Kenji, especially since the times the film did it was usually executed with heart and passion. Surprising Kazuma, a thirteen year old cousin of Natsuki received a large amount of screen time, especially near the end, despite the fact that his character was largely undeveloped and his icy demeanour made me instantly dislike him. For the most part the box art and introduction of the film gives the impression that Natsuki and Kenji are the protagonist but both fail to develop beyond their stereotypical and cliche constructs. Kenji is the shy and timid ‘nerd’, who lacks confidence in himself and the will to widen his comfort zone, whilst Natsuki fits the ‘pretty face and bold personality’ archetype. Sadly both characters won’t given the necessary screen time to fully expand beyond their initial defining traits.

Whilst these are all legitimate flaws and in most other films I would find myself emotionally disconnected or bored of the story in Summer Wars it is somewhat and strangely forgivable. The main reason was because the entire family felt like a single unit or a single character, Kenji didn’t only need acceptance from Natsuki’s grandmother, he needed to be embraced by the whole family for his relationship with Natsuki to work. In this sense, the overall lack of protagonist or the lack of development to major and minor characters was forgiven because the audience immediately substituted their own experiences and memories into the said family members. I think for the most part Hosada purposely tried to ‘limit’ the unique traits of different family members. The story was never really about individualism, if anything the ending is an example how relationships and the will of a community will always triumph individualistic pursuits or goals. This is why I honestly didn’t mind the fact that the characters excluding the grand mother were rather simplistic they were all pieces to a puzzle, pieces to a single family, Hosada had a purpose in mind with the execution and to a large extent, Summer Wars achieved it.

I can’t talk about the family any longer without mentioning the grand mother or her English voice actor; Pam Dougherty, who simultaneously embedded the character with strength, kindness and a motherly touch. Out of all the characters, she shines the brightest and her resilience and courage serve as the pillar of the proud Jinnouchi family. Honestly watching her was quite sad as my grandmother also had a few of her traits, maybe she wasn’t as strong or clever, but she was the eldest and in an Asian household, she was the most respected for her age and knowledge. Unfortunately Amnesia withered away my grandmother’s independence and personality and her bright talkative spark is now replaced with a quiet, sad obedience. The presence of any strong female character is especially welcome in a genre where females are generally sidelined as weak or unimportant (Naruto, Bleach, Death Note) Descended from a proud samurai family, responsible for moulding her fierce personality, the grandmother’s leadership and enthusiasm is responsible for some heavy moments later on; centred around forgiveness, the importance of family and the joys of simple living.

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Apart from the familiar characteristics of the family members, the attention to detail subtly breathed life into the rather simplistic story, like Kenji lagging behind Natsuki when he first enters the Jinnouchi residence, or the slightly disgruntled family member amongst the wave of smiles, hugs and laughter. The animation created an environment which felt like it was lived in, the walls were stained with age and the character designs were realistic and believable. On top of this the background was vibrant, fluid and alive with characters and objects independently moving, once again drawing the audience into a plausible world which similarly mirrors our own.

You may be wondering why I’ve neglected to mention the digital aspects of this film in particular the world of Oz until half way into this review? I really enjoyed this film and I felt that it was important to start this review off with a positive note because generally the strengths outweighed the negatives (a first impression is a lasting impression). But my main gripe with this story how disconnected I felt from the digital scenes in contrast to the scenes with the family, honestly I didn’t care for Kazuma very much and I cared even less about his presence on the digital world. I will praise Madhouse for giving those scenes a wonderfully unique art style and simultaneously blending a minimalist 3D animation look with the traditional forms of Japanese animation, to exaggerate the barriers between the physical and the cyber world. It was very effective and the actions scenes in Oz were smooth, fluid and was basically sexual intercourse for the eyes. However this doesn’t cover up the fact, I wasn’t fully engaged during those scenes and for the most part I wished the plot had simple followed the ‘dysfunctionally-functional’ Jinnouchi family, the Oz scenes served more as a distraction. It was hard to be emotionally invested in the world wide destruction caused by Love Machine when the story was so localised and the intricate inner family relations were so much more interesting. Ironically the strength of the family unit might of been the weakness of Summer Wars as I would of much rather watched the Jinnouchis eat dinner and reminisce about the past together than a cartoon rabbit defeat a mysterious virus to protect nameless and faceless individuals.

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If Oz becomes a real internet application, I want my avatar to look like that rabbit.

[Some spoilers, though to be honest, the information I will be discussing is really, really obvious, but if you want to avoid all spoilers, I would advise you to skip the next two paragraphs and go straight to my conclusion.]

Apart from the digital aspects of the film, there were only a few other instances which I was disengaged from Summer Wars, now I will admit that most of these issues maybe the result of cultural differences, but regardless I feel like it’s necessary to lightly address them. Animation is a powerful tool allowing the creators to create a ‘realistic’ world where rules can be bent to fit the narrative, that’s why we don’t really question the alchemy in Full Metal Alchemist, nor do we frown when a single punch from Ichigo rivals the power of an atomic bomb. However there were a few times the film’s use of animation served as a detriment, one particular scene jumps to mind which involves Watisube rushing home. However the audience quickly receives flashbacks to World War II at the amount of destruction caused by Watisube parking the car. Whilst this was semi-believable, evoking a humourous atmosphere during such an emotional scene was definitely counter productive.

Likewise the final scene involving Natsuki and Kenji was also quite anti-climatic, though I will once again acknowledge that Japan’s stance on public displays of affection or sex seems rather ‘prudish’ in contrast to my western upbringing. But the fact that Kenji was not comfortable or confident enough to properly and serious confess his feelings for Natsuki was rather disappointing as those two traits were aspects to Kenji’s character that should of developed during Summer Wars. Ironically it did feel like Kenji had grown, his uplifting leadership during the final conflict validated his position within the family and honestly Kenji not returning Natsuki’s kiss was just contradictory to what growth he had experienced. I understand that Kenji was more of a concept (shy, nerdy, introverted) rather than a actual strong character, but that doesn’t erase how disappointed I was, since I honestly wanted the two of them to become a couple, surrounded by such warm family members. If the camera (or animation) had zoomed up on Kenji’s face as he seriously expressed his feelings, it would have fit the themes of communication emphasised by this film and established Kenji as a more memorable character.

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Those pesky aunties… You gotta’ love em’.

Just as I feel it is important to start a review of an entertaining text on a positive note,the same logic can be applied to the conclusion as I want you to leave this review with a desire to watch this film. The music directed Akihiko Matsumoto was superb with certain tracks like Summer Wars, Happy End, 150 Million Miracles and Everyone’s Courage standing out on such a strong album. Despite the obvious Hisaishi influence on Matsumoto’s music which included a lot of uplifting songs with light and bouncy melodies, this is an album I would definitely listen to in my spare time. Honestly describing music is one of the more difficult task, music is a language, one which communicates through feelings, memories and emotions instead of words. So instead of doing Matsumoto’s works a great injustice, I will simply embedded said pieces at the bottom of this review for the audience to personally enjoy.

In many ways, Summer Wars could be classified as a slice of life anime but without the cliche cringe worthy moments and thankfully Hosada executed this project with more soul than most other films could dream about. At its heart, this is a film which highlights the importance of family, of opening communication lines and the responsibility we have to other family members during times of opulence and meagerness. Unlike Inception or Grave of the Fire Flies, this was a film where the story served as a springboard to explore the characters and whilst the plot was rather cliche, this is forgivable as the story was ultimately a tool to unite the Jinnouchi family. During its worst moments, this film can be slightly disengaging, particularly the scenes involving Oz, but at its best, Summer Wars leaves an imprint on the audience, gently reminding the audience to value family without the message being overly intrusive.

A box of tissues is highly recommended for viewing.

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“And you always eat together as a family, even during difficult times, because being hungry and being all alone are the worst things that can happen to anyone.” 

[KOI-KOI MOTHER FUCKERS]

Genre: Anime, Romance Film, Animation, Comedy, Science Fiction, Adventure Film, Drama, Action Film,
Certificate: PG-13
USA Release Date: 1st August 2009
Runtime: 116 minutes
Director: Mamoru Hosada
Writer: Satoko Okudera
Starring: Michael Sinterniklaas, Brina Palencia, Maxey Whitehead, Pam Dougherty, J Michael Tatum.
Synopsis: Kenji accompanies Natsuki to her grand mother’s birthday party, as chaos beings to affect the physical and cyber world.

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PS: [SPOILER] There was one scene in this film that made me clap out loud with joy, the scene where the Jinnouchi brothers lightly remind the over protective Shota Jinnouchi that he is not Natsuki’s boyfriend. The voice acting combined with the animation created such a memorable moments, the family is truly the best aspect of this film.

PSS: [SPOILER] I have heard many people confirm that Summer Wars is a more sophisticated and enjoyable version of Hosada’s other film; Digimon the Movie (1999). Whilst there are key similarities in plot and animation style, I am not too fused by this because… Firstly I never watched said Digimon film and secondly, it’s not exactly plagiarism since Hosada essentially copied his own ideas, though you could take points away for a lack of creativity.