Thursday, April 26, 2018

Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no Haka, Isao Takahata, 1988)

Child's play

Some years back for history class I showed my students Isao Takahata's Hotaru no haka (Grave of the Fireflies, 1988), about a brother and his younger sister--Seita and little Setsuko--struggling to survive in wartime Japan (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 clarification. But seeing the siblings' mother wrapped in blooded 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 usually 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, in turn resembling the flakes of glowing ash that whirl out of burning buildings. 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). 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. "Good question. What do you think?" I prodded gently.).

We talked a little about what Seita did, what the aunt who took the two children in did, and why. Someone asked about the money Seita hid--why didn't he buy food for his sister earlier? I pointed out that he did try buy food but no one was selling; the Japanese government was probably taking everything farmers produced and sending it to the troops. When towards the end Seita withdrew his remaining money things had changed; Japan had surrendered, rationing was over. Seita came home with rice meat watermelon all kinds of good things; of course by then it was too late.

On the question of fault: most of my students blamed the aunt for abusing the two children; some blamed Seita--he could have gotten a job, found some way to earn rent money, helped out; at worse he could have swallowed his pride and apologized 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 a few extra thoughts about the question of action vs. live action vis-à-vis Grave of the Fireflies--like Art Spiegleman in Maus, Takahata used classic anime faces (big eyes, small mouths) as a way of stylizing the story, of imposing the framework of cartoon entertainment on harrowingly realistic suffering.

Aside from the ideas I outline in the link 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. If anything, realist animation is arguably more difficult; you can fudge a giant robot, no one's sure what that will actually look like, but everyone knows the look of a spring shower, how it fills a street with puddles. Digital animation complicates the discussion--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 at the moon's face with a bullet-shaped spaceship and Bunuel sliced an eyeball with a straight razor and Cocteau filled a Beast's mirror with magic imagery. If live-action isn't asked to be so limited, why should animation? 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 animated or live-action has the grace and simplicity of our greatest filmmakers. 

Take the way for example he has Seita's spirit watching, at times functioning as silent witness, at times reacting wordlessly to 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 covers his eyes and ears. You want to ask: why does he watch? Is he just reliving the moment? Does he wish to somehow change what happened? Or is he helplessly drawn to to the scene like a moth to flame? The effect created when Takahata provokes such questions modulates the pain and--paradoxically--enhances it. Like a bombardier viewing the city he has devastated from a great height, or a patient under anesthesia watching the amputation of his own foot, one views the suffering with a feeling of dislocation and horror, the feeling rendered exquisite by distance.

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 a reverse shot of the two standing in the shelter, looking out on the lake (it's daytime, so presumably this is after the raid); cuts to a flashback of the aunt scolding 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 the next day and spirit-Seita converge at the same spot, to realize and meditate on the same idea: moving out from their aunt's to spend the rest of the war in here. Takahata suggests the significance 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 straightforward image, with emotional power above and beyond its ostensible simplicity. Seita finally comes back to the shelter with food and promises to cook for the feeble 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 stands up and leaves, and the camera pans down, bringing Setsuko to center screen--alone; unmoving; the sun-drenched entrance behind her. We know, even before Seita says a word; we simply know.

First written 12.2.08; extensively revised 4.26.18


Mimic Hootings said...

A finely written piece on a wonderful film that repays repeated viewings. I think Only Yesterday may be even more exquisite.

Noel Vera said...

You're not the only one to say that. I'll admit there could be something to that assertion.

Noel Vera said...

O and thanks.