Grave of the Fireflies (Isao Takahata, 1988): a little debate

Interesting debate on Grave of the Fireflies, Isao Takahata's 1988 masterpiece, initiated by gabe in the Miyazaki Mailing List

He does an admirable job of editing together the various posts in a very long and rather intense discussion...but fails to include my final word on the subject.

So, to put the record straight:

Friday, 28 October 2005:

> From:    Sing Yung JONG <singyung@PACIFIC.NET.SG>
> Then there is the "art film" aspect, by which I mean
> a film that is NOT
> plot-driven. I mean, some "stories" are really
> mood-driven, character-
> driven, theme-driven, etc., rather than
> story-driven.

There is a whole mode of storytelling in film and
literature that works this way, to which Japan is a
significant contributor: the works of masters like
Naruse and Ozu, of present-day contributors like
Hirokazu Kore-eda, of Taiwanese like Hou Hsiao Hsien
and Edward Yang, of Theo Angelopolous, Jacques
Rivette...it's a whole other way of storytelling
Hollywood (or Disney, for that matter) hasn't even
begun to explore.

> That's why I think it's a great idea for the
> Japanese TV series based on
> the book to use the aunt as a viewpoint character.

I'd like to see that series; wonder if it'll ever make
it on DVD.

> On Tue, 25 Oct 2005 21:24:12 -0700, Patrick Drazen
> <patrickdrazen@YAHOO.COM>
> Specifically, I'm thinking of the scene in which
> Shizuku nestles happily
> into Seiji's back as he gives her a ride on his
> bike.

Another moment that stays with me is San waking up to
Ashitaka watching over her. She has this moment where
she blinks sleepily, and it's as eloquent a moment of
blissful content as anything I've seen. A prime
example of Miyazaki transcending the, what I called
"ostensible limitations" of his medium.

> From:    gabe <gabechu@GMAIL.COM>
> that I found the
> brother's actions/inactions disgusting

Disgusting I can possible agree (I think that's one of
the key ambiguities in the film), but a person acting
in a morally repulsive manner doesn't necessarily
imply that the film is morally repulsive.

> I'm not trying to convince you
> that it's a bad
> film.

Understood. But if a person speaks out in a strong
negative reaction to a film others cherish so much,
the others can't help but ask (at the very least) that
person to try substantiate or elaborate on his
reactions--to help them at least understand where that
person is coming from, and beyond that, I guess,
hopefully learn that where that person is 'coming
from' is at least an understandable view. I'm not
quite sure I understand.

> I really don't remember the music (a hallmark of a
> good soundtrack
> some might say)

Two kinds of music: those that stay in the background,
and those that do not. Good music would follow the
artist's intentions. I do believe Takahata wanted
background music, not something you would hum walking
out of the theater.

> When I said that I felt it was trying too
> hard, I was
> referring to it's plot and situations (from a story
> point of view, not
> from a biographical point of view). See my statement
> regarding bathos.

Bathos coming from a real-life situation? I can't see
that. I can see bathos coming from the tone of the
film, and the way crucial scenes are played; that's
why I'm focused on the music and 'acting' (word in
quotes because, after all, these are celluloid figures
(which is the magic of it)).

> Not that I want anyone to, but I don't think anyone
> has actually
> refuted my main point of the brother's actions being
> disgusting.

I've mentioned choice being an essential part of
classic tragedy. Beyond that, the fact that the
brother had a choice gives rise to a series of
thoughts and feelings that complicate one's attitude
to the film beyond mere pity. That's the sort of thing
art does.

> already brought up). I don't want to see him letting
> his sister starve
> to death again. That, to me, is not a good story.

I understand the sentiment, though I might add by that
line of reasoning, Shoeshine and Los Olvidados (an
equally if not more harrowing film) do not have good
stories. Come to think of it, they have 'meandering,'
'shapeless' narratives as well (words in quotes since
these qualities are often arrived at through careful
script writing).

> While discussing any subject it
> certainly helps to be
> well-versed on the subject matter

Definitely agree with that.

> From:    Charles Schoppet <schoppet@GMAIL.COM>
> I can understand the actions of the brother in GOTF.
>   It's so easy
> for an adult to miss the signs of starvation in a
> child, that they see
> everyday.

There's  that moment of shock when the girl takes off
her shirt, and the brother sees her ribs poking
through the skin. He may have had an idea, but I think
the full extent of it never dawned on him until that

> From:    gabe <gabechu@GMAIL.COM>
> without question. But without admitting the brother
> character
> logically had to have eaten his sister's food,
> viewing the movie might
> seem that the brother character placed a relatively
> larger part of the
> blame on the situation rather than his own decision.

It's possible; the tragedy there then is of willful
blindness. But if he blames the situation rather than
himself, would he allow himself to starve to death?

> Reading the author's words, there was a very clear
> admittance of guilt
> and wrongdoing on his part. Watching his story, I
> don't think he went
> so far as to fully disclose the depths of his
> depravity.

But does this make the film a bad film? The author
speaks out directly, and that's good; the film makes
the point subtly, the guilt hinted at by the brother's
decision to leave his aunt (he kills his sister with
his pride) and his own eventual suicide.

> On 10/27/05, Charles Schoppet <schoppet@gmail.com>
> wrote:
> > However, I do believe he should have taken his
> Aunt's lead and found work.

And that's why I believe Grave is closer to classic
tragedy than a mere documentation. He had a choice, he
wilfully led his sister to her doom. With the
mitigating thought that he probably didn't think of it
intentionally that way (I'd rather have my pride than
my sister), that he actually thought they can live it
out on their own, and that swallowing one's pride in
that situation is really quite hard. I can see he's
wrong, but I hesitate to condemn him for it.

> From:    gabe <gabechu@GMAIL.COM>
> I mostly avoid dramas, but when it comes to
> tragedies, I'll move to a
> different state. Had I looked at it in that way (or
> had it been sold
> to me in that manner), I probably would've never
> even watched it.

I do think the marketing doesn't do enough to warn
prospective viewers...but how to do that without
giving away the story? Tough sell.

(Postscript: I should clarify that what I mean by "classic tragedy" isn't the tragedy of the Greeks, where fate is unchangeable, but something closer to Shakespeare, where character determines fate as much as outward forces do. Seita is undone by his inner flaws as much as by the war.)

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