Grave of the Fireflies

From I Spit on Your Groove's Picture What Moves thread in Drive We Said:

Rkiivs: Grave of The Fireflies

Probably attributed to raw emotions from New Orleans, this film really moved me and put a big ol' lump in my throat at the end. I wouldn't exactly transpose this story to the fiasco in New Orleans, but this film illustrates what happens post-disaster when people are largely ignored.

That's a great film, one of the greatest war films and films on children ever made. In the same league with Forbidden Games and Shoeshine, I think.

Dock Miles: I'm on a different vibe with Fireflies. I agree that it's trying to be an animated version of Forbidden Games. And I think that's just a bad, pretentious, tedious idea. Some films slap you in the face every few moments: "I'm ART, goddammit, I'm ART!" For me, Fireflies just kinda whispered it over and over. Had a hard time finishing it.

Takahata making "art?" I don't know. It felt like he was telling a story (actually, I thought Forbidden Games was just telling a story). Scenes like making the best out of a can of candy drop didn't seem pretentious at all, but a precise observation of how kids act.

The performances were exquisite.

Dock Miles: Telling a story with live actors is simply different than telling a story with drawn actors. I think Fireflies indeed fails to acknowledge that. It may as well have been a live-action film.

It is (story with live actors different from story with drawn actors), and the more similar art is I think puppetry: you're using an ostensibly less expressive medium to approximate the performance of the human face. Takahata achieves the kind of miracle master puppeteers (or master animators) achieve regularly: he creates performances out of base materials. Like Miyazaki, in fact; I think he's an equal of Miyazaki's, if not his superior.

As to realistic animation being no different from live-action films, that's an old charge, and I can suggest two answers to that: Spiegelman's Maus is an extensively researched and amazingly realistic depiction of the Holocaust (at the same time it's a painfully honest confession from a child of the Holocaust) that might as well be done as a book of photographs or a novel, with one difference: Spiegelman puts animal heads on his characters. It's a simple trick that uses of the medium of comics as an artform, and wonderfully expressive.

I think Takahata does something similar here, only instead of animal heads, he uses standard-issue anime faces--big eyes, small mouths, huge foreheads. Like Spiegelman, he's using a classic device to stylize a realistic story, to add metaphor to the material. You--or at least the Japanese audience, and any audience familiar with anime--are looking at anime kids who act and talk and think like real kids, slowly starving to death. I think that has a real impact.

Beyond that, if this were a live-action film, it's possible it wouldn't have been done by Takahata. He's done documentaries, but hasn't made a career of live-action features--animation is his chosen profession. It's his choice, this was the particular material he chose to work on at the time, and I for one am glad for the choices--animation or live-action, I think this is superb storytelling.

For more extensive use of the medium of animation, though, you might want to try Takahata's Pom Poko; for more extensive use of the medium of animation on strictly domestic as opposed to fantasy material, you could check out My Neighbor the Yamadas. I do believe Takahata is as skillful at directing fantastic and stylized animation as he is at directing realistic animation.

Dock Miles: Well, that may be the nub of the difference in our outlooks: animation doesn't seem any more like puppetry to me than it does live-person film. Three different things.

And I'm not sure that the "funny animal" comparison means anything. Carl Barks's ducks might as well be humans, too.

Three different things. Two of them have a similar purpose in relation to the third, I'd say.

And Barks' ducks are wonderful characters, to be sure, but the right question to ask might be: do mouse heads on Holocaust victims work, or is it just a shallow conceit?

Japanese anime studios do these kinds of super-realistic stories; Ghibli's done at least two others: Only Yesterday and Ocean Waves. No masterpieces, I think, but they're pretty good (Only Yesterday, which Takahata also did, I thought especially fine), and here again, I'd ask: what's the point of requesting that they be done live-action? They were done by Ghibli,as well as they could be done. A live action version might have been coarser, maybe.

I can't think of many Japanese filmmakers still alive who are actually good and do straight drama--Hirokazu Kore-eda, perhaps; Kurosawa Kyoshi if the mood struck him (License to Live was pretty good, I thought); not a big fan of Kohei Oguri or Akihiko Shiota (I might have to look at their films again), or even Takeshi Kitano's non-violent stuff. For better or worse, seems like anime filmmakers have taken up some of the slack.

Dock Miles: "do mouse heads on Holocaust victims work, or is it just a shallow conceit?"

I think involving that particular subject matter throws the discussion off. Using "funny animals" works the same imagination-displacement no matter what the story is about.

Doesn't a similar approach work in Grave? Does using big-eyed anime faces on children victimized by the Allied bombing of Japan count as a stylization of a subject often tackled with a realist approach (serious or trivial, it shouldn't matter), and doesn't it exploit the medium of animation?

And in fact, isn't using what is commonly considered a children's medium, in a film I'd say was meant for children (make it live action and you instantly relegate it to the arthouse circuit; make it anime and who in Japan are going to watch this--and at what ages?), to depict the slow suffering and starvation of children some kind of statement by itself? One I for one might consider artistic? Well, courageous, anyway.

Dock Miles: I don't think anyone imagines animation is a children's medium any more, and it was never true, anyway. So I think that's irrelevant. I'd have to take another look at Grave to have much more to say about it. And that's not likely to happen. And again, it's not what the film is about, as such, that matters -- it's how the work's done. (I've never bought the grand, tragic art = grand, tragic subject argument.)

No, grand subject, grand art--never bought that either (that's one reason why I like Takahata's Our Neighbor the Yamadas so much).

It is perhaps not true that animation was ever a children's medium, but the common perception is that certain animation is. I think Grave taps into that kind of perception, employing the kind of faces you find in children's anime , and using it for a specific purpose.

I'd say forget that it's animation and try looking at it (if ever you get around to doing so again) as a story. Is the story told well? I think so, but maybe if you set the question of "to animate or not to animate" aside, some other reason why it seems so unlikeable or pretentious might come up.

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