Insights & Art

Straight from the dome to the plate.

Tag: Death

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.

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Théoden’s Last Cry

“Forth! Down fear of darkness!
Arise! Arise, Riders of Théoden!
Spears shall be shaken, shields shall be splintered!
A sword day… a red day… and the sun rises!
Ride now… Ride now… Ride!
Ride for ruin and the world’s ending! Death!”

Lord of the Rings stands as a pillar of English literature with Tolkien’s world serving as the archetype for the fantasy genre since the book’s publication. But beyond that, it stands as a symbol of humanity, our ability to overcome darkness with courage.

One major criticism I have on the Lord of the Rings trilogy is generally the lack of duality within characters and more specifically, the lack of flexibility within certain races; all orcs are evil whilst elves are pure and angelic. But in reality orcs are really just a symbol, a blank token or unwavering hatred which must be challenged and defeated. The lack of character development amongst the orcs, goblins and trolls reflect their use as a catalyst to put humanity and it’s neighbouring races through adversity.

The characters and kingdoms in the Lord of the Rings respond magnificently to these waves of chaos, steeling themselves against the forces of evil, forces who wish to trample upon community. I was very scared of death when I was younger, I have made my peace with the inevitable now, but unquestionably the prospect of the abyss still scares me. This is why I see sacrifice as the noblest and most courageous act an individual can perform, when someone believes in a cause so strongly they see fit to forfeit their life to protect that ideal or that spark of hope… It’s powerful, beautiful and extremely moving.

Against all odds, the forces of Rohan unite, reforging their ancient alliance to Gondor, they see the hordes of darkness before them yet they do not stumble, they do not falter. In that moment, the actions of the soldiers showed that humanity was worth protecting, that mankind was not beyond salvation. The soldiers which all hail from different backgrounds prepare to rush to their tangible death to protect something intangible; their ancestor’s legacy and the right for their future generations to walk as free on this green Earth.

Their great deeds would forever be recorded in the songs of lore, of a bygone age where the strength of men did not flinch from the call of duty, where evil merely broke like water upon an iron cliff. From the lowly foot soldier to the mighty king, all were equal on that day and all were willing to die in pursuit of higher ideals. There is no moment more powerful in the trilogy, courage in the face of impending doom, valour against hatred and glory when met with the impossible.

Tis’ a sword day, a red day indeed Théoden king.

 

The Passing Orange of Autumn (A Dime A Dozen)

6952104-beautiful-autumn-pictures

The young lady stood opposite the bricked house. An imposing oak door guarded the mouth of the building, its windows sealed shut and the curtains drawn she climbed the staircase and knocked. She retreated near the faded gate, inspecting the elderly woman scurrying down the stairs.

The woman’s orange scarf blended in amongst the autumn scenery. After a quick greeting the pair journey down the pavement, the crisp maple leaves softening their step. A gentle wind blew as if to assist them toward ‘’are you ready for your psychiatry session today?’’ asked the young woman her voice laced with strength and confidence, her amber eyes focused upon the frail croaked body of her chest. ‘’I am here to help you deal with the death of your husband.’’

The old woman nodded, her eyes faced upon the grey concrete ‘’how does it feel, what emotions are you experiencing?’’ questioned the young lady as she slowed her pace to match her clients. The crackling of leaves was interrupted by the elderly woman’s mumblings ‘’sorrow and overwhelming loneliness. ’The psychiatrist nodded her head; she had expected such an answer. “There are a few steps you must follow, firstly acceptance of reality, secondly establishing a network of friends and thirdly-.” The old woman interrupted, the sleep in her eyes banishing. “My dear, dealing with loss is not a formula; you can never heal from the death of a loved one… Just learn to live with it.” She continued calmly, “The scars of loss can never heal they will just fade with time.” The pair continued to walk down the street, the psychiatrist opened her mouth but her client began to speak again… “I still forget he’s gone, I bring out two cups of tea, I still cook two plates of food and wake up expecting his smile.”

Maple leaves danced with the wind as the pair walked down the street. Suddenly the elderly woman grabbed the younger lady’s hand, “Come I will show you where we first met!” They paced down the street ignoring the speeding cars and the hordes of weary people, the birds began to sing in the background. The old lady asked questions about the psychiatrist’s family and friends. She explained work had consumed her life and she had little time for leisure and enjoyment; it had been months since she had last spoken with her parents. The elderly woman shook her head and asked, the grey skies casted a sombre tone on the scenery.

They arrived at an empty park. The play equipment had decayed under the pressures of time. The old woman pointed to a large stump that had once been the foundation of a magnificent tree. ‘’He tried to impress me by climbing that tree…silly, he fell and broke his arm.’’ The young lady giggled, too aware of how emotions of love overwhelmed logic. The elderly woman slumped into the swings ‘’He would push me here…we would meet every weekend.’’ The old woman cleared her throat ‘’you know when you age and mature, trivial matters like money and fame disappear and the most important things like love and pride resurfaces.’’ The psychiatrist stood silent absorbing the knowledge of her ‘’client.’’ “Our society has always been a materialistic one and so many young children lose the joys of simplistic living in the dreams of excess.”

The elderly woman continued preaching her wisdom until the young lady asked ‘’will you be able to cope?’’ her concern evident in her voice. The elderly woman smiled and patted her shoulder. ‘’You just listening to me speak has made me forget about the pain temporarily.’’ With that she stood up grabbed her psychiatrist’s hand and began to retrace her steps home. The swing swung sadly for a few more moments before it halted completely as if a ghost of the past was taking its final leap.

The pair walked silently, not wanting to shatter the beautiful moment with the burdens of life. The two walked past a young girl bubbling with immense happiness and she realised how much time’s hands had shaped her. Gone was her sparkling joy, new replaced with materialistic desires and fascinations. ‘’Remember to visit your parents’’ smiled the elderly woman ‘’they must miss you incredibly.’’ Her voice wheezy from exhaustion, the crunch of fresh maple leaves announced their arrival.

After a final exchange of words the woman unlocked the gate and shuffled up the stairs. The psychiatrist remembering she had missed one vital part of the elderly woman’s life asked.. ‘’Wait! What’s your name?’’ The client turned around and explained, ‘’Names are just labels, you know my history, my fears and values is that not enough?’’ With one last smile she closed the large brown oak door.

Rotting Sickness (A Dime A Dozen)

smokey river, grey
poisoned leeches shudders black
the beast of decay
stagnant waters breeding death
cry of Madness echoes forth

This tanka poem was inspired by J.R.R Tolkien’s sickly description of the Dead Marshes.

“Here nothing lived, not even the leprous growths that feed on rottenness. The gasping pools were choked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomited the filth of their entrails upon the lands about.”

Hakuna Matata.

What’s the point of life? What’s the final goal, destination or reward. This is a question that has endured since the beginning of time and humanity has long searched for an answer. Here’s where I come in, I mean who doesn’t want to hear an average teenager’s response? (Don’t answer that.)

The average life span of an Australian male is 79.5 years. I am 18, so I have approximately 61.5 years left. I will spend a few years here and there with gaining and education, chop off around 6 years. This society dictates I work and contribute towards Capitalism so slice approximately 40 years off my life. 15.5 years left, age begins to weigh upon me and soon I am a burden to the younger generation and I am quickly whisked off the stage of life. Retirement goes slowly by as the joys of life fades with your health, 15 years flies by and soon you are left with 6 months left. (For your information, I plan to spend the last 6 months of my life in Harlem Prison spitting some heavy Wu-Tang lines to war veterans, stay fresh.)

Let’s examine the regrets of the dying, those who’s brief time on this earth has expired and will fade into non-existence. Let’s see how we can learn from the past and avoid filling their empty shoes on the cycle of life.

1. “I WISH I WOULD HAD THE COURAGE TO LIVE A LIFE TRUE TO MYSELF, NOT THE LIFE OTHERS EXPECT OF ME.”

This was the most common regret of all, too many people altered themselves to fit the expectations of others. Too many times did they compromise themselves to fulfill another’s dream, people are scared of being shunned thus they accept a life of mediocrity instead of pursuing their hopes and goals. When one learns not to seek external validation for their happiness they are avoid being entrapped in a regret.

“Life is a daring adventure or nothing.
– Helen Keller.

2. ” I WISH I DIDN’T WORK SO HARD.”

There was once when I valued money more than happiness. The Asian culture places heavy focus upon wealth, education and having a stable occupation, many of you readers may recoil from this and label that culture as materialistic, backwards or wrong. But isn’t all cultures strange and bizarre to those who stand outside it’s borders? China has long been a poor nation, from the start of the 19th century, it’s been involved with in two wars with Japan, (1894-1895 and 1937-1945.) It’s had opium dumped onto it’s shores by Western nations which destroyed it’s culture and crippled it’s economy. Eight nations have invaded China since the 1900s, Austria-Hungary, France, Italy, England, Russia, Japan, Germany and the United States. So obviously values such as education, wealth and money were important, how else would you feed your family? How else could you provide for your aging parents?

But thankfully, I grew as a person, wealth was important and necessary but money can’t buy love, money can’t buy a smiling household nor happy memories. Finally all the wealth in the world would be pointless when death arrives, as an Ancient Chinese proverb states, “All are equal before death.” I asked myself would I rather be on my death bed surrounded by money or my family and friends? The answer was simple, wealth is necessary but materialism shouldn’t be one’s objective.

3. “I wish I had the courage to express myself.” 

This ties heavily with the number one regret of not limiting or compromising yourself to satisfy others. Being yourself gives you a sense of freedom in life, one does not have to be chained down by lies which served to fill their insecurities, one does not have to halt their opinion because they are afraid of the consequences. When one takes a step back and realise their time on Earth is but a blink of an eye in the scheme of this universe, we begin to understand how foolish it is to act according to society’s unwritten laws.

4. “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”

Once again notice, the regret isn’t I wish I had another few grand for a Ferrari  or I wish my house had a cinema room. These regrets reflect the true essence of humanity, that us humans thrive when we belong, we thrive on human connection. Technology has allowed us to communicate more and more but at the same time it has reduced human contact, no longer does one have to see a friend to maintain their relationship just Facebook them once in a while and watch as their friendship decays.

“I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.”
– Albert Einstein.

5. “I wish that I had let myself be happier.”

This is what I deem to be the key, happiness melts away all other regrets and worries. You are happy when you live a life true to your own values and beliefs. (Regret 1.) You are happy when you realise consumerism can not substitute joy. (Regret 2.) You are happy when you don’t have to hide behind a mask, when you can stand for what you believe in despite opposition. (Regret 3.) You are happy when your relationships don’t fade but grow stronger as you age. (Regret 4.) Happiness is the single counter to all the regrets.

People’s perceptions and attitudes have a funny way of changing when they embrace their morality. We are a tiny speck in this vast universe so our actions will have little consequences, even the greatest kings and scholars fall before the endless march of time. Thus I have decided that the objective of my life is not to seek fame or fortune, not to have the most exotic wife nor the fastest car. It’s too be happy because 79.5 years later I want to be on my death bed, smiling, knowing that I leave in peace, knowing that I had the courage to talk to that pretty girl down the street, knowing I lived my life with fear of judgement and knowing that I lived everyday with a single phrase in mind “Hakuna Matata.”

“Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”

– Dr Seuss.

Stanley out.