Tuesday, December 02, 2008

American kids view 'Not One Less,' 'Grave of the Fireflies,' and 'Whispers of the Heart'

(Warning: plot twists and general story for all three films discussed in detail!)

Three films about children

Some weeks back I talked to some kids about the Philippines, showed them Lino Brocka's Insiang and Ramona Diaz's Imelda and then moved on to talk about China. End of that series of lectures I decided to show them a film that I thought would give them an idea of if not present-day China at least China at a transitory stage, from being a purely communist country to a country with a communist government and capitalist economy.

Zhang Yimou's Yi ge dou bu neng shao (Not One Less, 1999)--his finest film, in my opinion, is about a substitute teacher named Wei who is promised a bonus if she can keep her students attending school. It's a portrait of what life is like for the majority, the people who live in the countryside and (as opposed to urban dwellers) struggle to comply with the government-mandated nine years of schooling; even in recent years the issue of education in the countryside is still a problem. "This would have been before China's economy really started kicking in," I reminded them. "Even in China, the countryside's usually the last to benefit."

Zhang's story went down remarkably well for the most part; some were bored by the slice-of-life neorealism, others were charmed by the kids (I'd mentioned that Zhang in the film used non-actors playing more or less themselves and using their own names--the town mayor is played by a real town mayor, the students by real students, the TV station manager by a real station manager so on and so forth, to which they asked "is this a true story?" Had to reply "no, but the situation is true").

A student drops out of school to work in the city; Teacher Wei and her entire class scheme and struggle to raise money for a bus ticket so she could follow and drag him back. Eventually (after an unsuccessful attempt to board a bus) she hunkers down and starts walking, at which point I made this brief note about the Chinese character: that they can be practical to the point of materialism (Wei early on simply writes the day's schoolwork on the chalkboard, then posts by the door to prevent walkouts), and stubborn to the point of absurdity (she refuses to let one student go and participate in a state-run sports program for promising athletes), but when faced with impossible odds they will sometimes go forth and do what's needed, a step at a time if necessary. That's their curse (I believe Mao tried to exploit this trait with his Great Leap Forward) and glory (the recent economic miracle, which bloomed from out of the state of stagnation they suffered in the previous decades). I can't help but think that the young men and women in my classes, watching the girl walk the long miles to the city, were impressed.

Having discussed Philippine history and touching along the way the subject of wartime atrocities committed by the Japanese on us Filipinos, then discussing Chinese history and touching along the way the subject of wartime atrocities committed by the Japanese on the Chinese, I decided to do something a little different and show the Second World War from the other side--hence my choice of Isao Takahata's great Hotaru no haka (Grave of the Fireflies, 1988) for a final film (warning: film's story discussed in close detail).

So how did they take it? The back-and-forth time scheme confused them a little, and needed a little clarification. But seeing the mother wrapped in blood-drenched bandages--as one young man put it "if that were my mom, I'd snap; just take out a gun and kill everyone in sight." I'm usually supposed to squelch mention of gunplay or killing in the classroom, but this time I let it pass; the boy was visibly upset.

I pointed out little visual effects that Takahata inserted into the film--bits like the falling napalm canisters resembling fireflies, which in turn resembled the glowing flakes of ash whirling out of burning buildings. I pointed out how the camera would move from Seita or Setsuko in natural light, then move to Seita again in deep red light, and how this would indicate that spirit-Seita and spirit-Setsuko are watching events from their past lives ("Does this mean Setsuko's dead too?" one young woman inquired. "What do you think?" I asked her). I singled out the scene where Seita washes his face from a spraying water pipe as an example of the film's animation quality (water being--or at least used to be, before the advent of digital animation--the most difficult of elements to animate).

The ending--well, they'd as likely as not come out of the screening looking as if they'd been poleaxed. Some asked "Is she dead?" to which I'd reply with Seita's words: "She never woke up." We talked a little about what Seita did, what their aunt did, and why.

Someone asked about the money Seita had--why didn't he buy food for his sister earlier? I pointed out that he tried to buy food, but no one was selling; the Japanese government was probably collecting everything the farmers produced for the war effort. When towards the end Seita withdrew his remaining money to buy food, it most likely wasn't with any expectation that he could actually buy anything, but things had changed; Japan had surrendered, rationing was over. When he got home, it was with rice, meat, watermelon, all kinds of good things to eat...

On the question of who was at fault--most of the youths blamed the aunt for being mean; some blamed Seita--he could have gotten a job, or found some way to earn rent money, or helped out; he could at worse have always swallowed his pride and gone back to the aunt. One perceptive student answered: "No one--Seita and Setsuko are too young to be responsible for their actions. The aunt was just trying to do her best. The Japanese government was too busy losing the war. And the United States was too busy trying to win it." A second student said: "Everyone--Seita for being too proud to go back, the aunt for being too mean to stay with, the Japanese government for neglecting the children, and the Americans for bombing the city."

Watching the film for the umpteenth time, I had these few extra thoughts about the question of action vs. live action vis-à-vis Grave of the Fireflies (in short: like Art Spiegleman in Maus, Takahata used classic anime faces (big eyes, small mouths) as a way of stylizing the story, of imposing realistic suffering on characters that look as if they belonged in a children's cartoon--the most innocent of innocents, meant for innocents' entertainment--for greater impact).

Aside from the ideas I outline in the link immediately above I wondered: some demand of anime or animation in general that it fully exploit its potential, in effect asking that animation be less, not more realistic, since this is where it excels. But the Japanese (and the British, come to think of it--see Watership Down and The Plague Dogs) feel no such compulsion; the Japanese in particular dabble in both fantastic and realistic animation, and I for one don't see them exploiting the medium with any less skill and passion and attention to detail when in the realist mode, nor do I see them condemning realist animation as being necessarily inferior. If anything, realist animation is arguably a more difficult achievement; you can fudge a giant robot, no one's sure what that will actually look like, but everyone knows the look of a rain shower in spring, and how it fills a street with puddles. Digital animation complicates the discussion, of course--but there's often a sameness, a uniformity to digitally created weather (at least in its present state) that keeps it from being truly evocative.

But flip the question around: why should live-action filmmaking confine itself to realism? Because that's what it does best? In fact live-action filmmaking does not confine itself to realism and hasn't since the beginning of cinema--since Melies shot the moon in the eye with a bullet-shaped spaceship and Bunuel sliced an eyeball with a straight razor and Cocteau filled a Beast's castle with enchantments and magic mirrors. If live-action isn't asked to be so limited, why should animation?

But I've never really been interested in the realist vs. fabulist debate; the question that's always interested me was "is it art, and is it done well?" I submit that Takahata's filmmaking--whether animated or live-action ultimately doesn't matter--has the grace and simplicity of the greatest filmmakers. Take the way, for example, he has Seita's spirit look on, at times taking our place as silent witness, at times wordlessly commenting on the action, a mute but mediating intelligence straight out of Thornton Wilder. When Setsuko shrieks and demands that her mother's kimonos be left alone (the aunt wants to sell them for rice), Seita's spirit watches, then shuts his eyes and ears to Seita's cries. You want to ask: why does he watch? Is he just reliving the moment? Does he return wishing to somehow change what happened? Or is he helplessly drawn because he is attracted to scenes of great pain or emotion, the way a moth is to flame? The distancing effect created when Takahata provokes such questions modulates the pain and--in some paradoxical way--enhances it. Like a bombardier viewing the city he devastated from a great height, or a patient under anesthesia watching the amputation of his own foot, one views such suffering with a feeling of dislocating and at the same time exquisite horror.

At one point Seita's running with Setsuko from a night raid, seeking shelter; suddenly it's spirit-Seita and spirit-Setsuko running up the hill, and the camera cranes up behind them to reveal an abandoned shelter facing a small lake. Takahata cuts to the two standing in the shelter, looking out on the lake (it's daytime, so presumably this is some time after the night raid); cuts to a flashback of the aunt upbraiding them--for the umpteenth time--for their uselessness, suggesting they move out; then cuts to a closeup of Seita, thinking over his aunt's suggestion. Takahata could have kept it straightforward (Seita finds the shelter, realizes it's livable), but instead has Seita from the night raid, Seita from some time later, and spirit-Seita converge at the same spot, to realize and dwell upon the same idea: that they should move out from their aunt's and move in here, for the rest of the war. This way Takahata suggests the fatefulness of a decision that will affect--haunt, even--all three young men for the rest of their respective timelines (past, nearer past, indeterminate present).

But if Takahata is a master at complex, time-twisting effects above and beyond anything even a relatively accomplished practitioner like Mamoru Hosada is capable of, he's also a master of the heroically simple shot, with an emotional power above and beyond its ostensible simplicity. When Seita finally comes back to the shelter with food and promises to cook some for Setsuko, Takahata shoots the scene's final shot head-on, with Setsuko lying in profile on the screen's lower half and Seita sitting up and to the right. Seita leaves, and the camera pans down, bringing Setsuko to the center of the screen--alone; still and unmoving; the shelter's sun-drenched entrance behind her. We know, even before Seita says a word; we simply know.

I had expected to end there, but was given a few extra days. Subjecting young men and women--some of them hardened young men and women--to Hotaru no haka may have been a bit much, so by way of compensation, I thought of a light-hearted pleasure of a film, set this time in modern-day Japan. Hence: Yoshifumi Kondo's Mimi wo sumaseba (Whispers of the Heart, 1995).

The reactions broke down according to sex with considerable precision. The boys were charmed, at least until the frankly corny ending ("They admitted it was corny;" I told them. "Admitting the corniness is one way of dealing with it. Isn't it?"); the girls just ate it up, save for one girl who was furious that they didn't kiss. "Sometimes not getting the kiss is more fun and memorable, at least in a movie," I told her.

Can't help but be struck by the incredibly detailed artwork used to depict the grandfather's antique shop--the half-lit galleon complete with rigging and canvas sailing away on one table; the vase full of feathery reeds waving in another; the shelf full of dimly glimpsed porcelain gleaming in the far back. It's as if Kondo had said to his background artists "Go nuts," and the artists did--the shop is meant to be a magical place, and you know it the minute Shizuku steps inside.

Then there's the foliage shadow. I usually don't pay attention to vegetation in anime films, much less their shadows, but I submit Kondo or some animator working under him is a master of foliage shadow--I'm thinking of the way the leaves break up the light in one scene, that bittersweet moment when Sugimura grips Shizuku's hand, hoping against hope that she will admit that she loves him. An imperfect creature craves the affection of another imperfect creature; Shizuku is aware that Sugimura's hardly the romantic hero type, aware that she hardly deserves the romantic hero type (and someone like Sugimura is probably the most she can aspire to). The dappled sunlight, neither pure light nor pure shadow but some compromise of both not only provides dramatic lighting but represents the imperfect, compromised world Shizuku must deal with.

Then there's the weather, which is almost a character in itself: the film is full of sun, clouds, rains, mists, winds. When Seiji tells Shizuku what he really feels about her, the rain has just stopped; the rooftop they stand on faces a dramatic cityscape full of shifting shafts of light, of dark-bellied clouds rolling across a sky of pure blue.

The film's such a perfectly delightful little rom-com (have I mentioned how much I despise that word?) that it pretty much ruins all other romantic comedies for me; I keep comparing each and every subsequent example of the genre to Kondo's film, and finding them all woefully short. Actually, Kondo's film itself falls short of its own standards; the first half up to the rooftop scene is perfect, I submit--afterwards the film tends to flail about, much like the heroine (which makes sense, actually--form following female).

The fantasy sequences I find rococo, overdone--which again would be consistent with a first-time, youthful effort at fantasy (much is made of the fact that a high school art teacher named Inoue Naohisa did the art. Does the teacher suspect what I suspect, that producer Miyazaki chose his work as an example of overdecorated youthfulness?). The flying sequences (reportedly directed by Miyazaki himself) don't have that same sense of mass and weight and realism found in the man's other films--mainly, I suppose, because the fantasy of flight is set against Naohisa's distractingly busy background.

And yet, and yet, and yet, Mimi's romantic heart can be found in this latter, messier half. The idea of a young artist like Shizuku setting down to write her first story, ignorant of what she faces yet determined to accomplish her task, is both painful and poignant to contemplate; I'm reminded of Herman Melville's Pierre (easily a stranger work than his better-known previous novel), about a similarly naive artist hoping to write himself out of his predicament. The despair, the fury inspired (you know how difficult the task is, you know how inadequate your abilities are) is intense, unsettlingly so; it's almost like cheating that the grandfather manages to soothe Shizuku's anguish with a bowl of hot ramen (the grandfather notes that his grandson Seiji, the too-perfect boy in love with Shizuku, needed four bowls of hot ramen to console himself).

The film resolves itself happily, but an image remains, that of Shizuku running past all the glowing gemstones to end up with a little dead bird curled up in her hands (perhaps the only moment of fantasy in the film that really works, because the bird hardly looks like a child's fantasy). It's about as eloquent a metaphor for a writer's sense of inadequacy as anything I know and believe me, I know--I've been there so many times.


Quentin Tarantado said...

Twilight! Twilight! Twilight!
You have to review Twilight!

Noel Vera said...

I can tell you right now (more later): it sucks. It sucks donkey dong.

gmoke said...

Once upon a time, I saw a Japanese war movie from the late Thirties. It was called something like "Five Comrades" and told the story of a platoon of Japanese soldiers fighting in China. It was remarkably like American WWII movies like "Air Force" of "A Walk in the Sun." Would make an interesting double feature to compare and contract the WWII movies of the US and Japan or even those of the UK and Germany, the same war seen from the opposing sides.

Good for you on bringing such films to your students.

Noel Vera said...

There's Dawn of Freedom, a co-production between the Japanese and less than willing Filipino filmmakers. And, if I remember right, a Japanese film on the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Gloria said...

"Grave of the fireflies" is a film I always have a hard time watching it. I just can't watch it in one sitting, as I cry myself silly and have to stop for a while until I'm able to go on (I'm talking about DVD, this of course would be impossible)

Mind me, it's excellent, but there's that powerlessness, as an spectator, to see what is happening to teh children, and not being able to do anything to prevent it... I had read the novel prior to being aware of the film, but I have to say that the film is somehow more powerful than the novel.

I think that this film should be shown to anyone regarding war as a gung-ho, great big adventure sort of thing: tis is the real side of war: suffering, misery, hunger, death

Mimi O Sumaseba, on the otehr hand, is plain magic, not in the "imaginary" bits, but in quiet moments, like the girl following the intriguing fat cat, or the stillness of the closed store, full of countless treasures.

Noel Vera said...

Absolutely, Gloria.

Mind you, when I call the first part of 'Mimi' perfect and the second half not, I don't mean the first is necessarily better in every sense. It's perfectly entertaining, and it certainly draws you into the stories and the characters; that said, the meat and heart of the film is found in the second half. You remember that first half with fondness, the second with more unsettling thoughts.

And I love works of art where the narrative follows some kind of unusual structure, in this case, the emotional velocity of the protagonist. From the smooth curve describing her approach and finally encounter with Seiji to her 'drunken walk' (it's a math thing), exploring different directions in an attempt to find her voice. Form follows female.

Anonymous said...

Not One Less, by Zhang Yimou, paints a realistic picture of rural education in China.

Released in 1999, and winner of the 1999 Venice Film Festival Golden Lion Award, it is a film known for raising awareness about the conditions of rural education amongst the Chinese public.

Noel Vera said...

That it did, and I was interested in knowing if it's still a problem, given China's recent economoic growth (apparently yes, see link above, but they were doing something about it). I'd like one more follow-up, how the situation is now, with the global economic crisis and all...