Friday, May 24, 2013

Losing the War (Grave of the Fireflies)

On the cusp of the Memorial Day holiday weekend here in the States, the blog finds itself at the serendipitous intersection of the 1001 Movies Blog Club schedule and ANIME MONTH with a review of a fictionalized World War II memoir, Grave of the Fireflies. And fair warning, this is going to get into some heavy stuff because this is a thoroughly depressing movie. I’m not inclined to think that counts as a spoiler, as you may be aware that Japan did not fare especially well in the Second World War; more to the point, Grave of the Fireflies begins with its main character reflecting on the day he died, and meeting the spirit of his younger sister, before embarking on an extended flashback, so the structure of the story gives away its own ending. Still, I think it’s appropriate to give people a chance to turn away now if the youngest victims of war are not something you care to dwell on today.

(By the by, have I mentioned that back when I came up with the idea of doing ANIME MONTH on the blog I thought maybe it would entail picking up the first box set of Battle of the Planets and revisiting the unsupervised afternoons of my youth spent watching goofy foreign action-adventure cartoons on local tv? But then I decided buying those DVDs was an indulgence I should skip, and I dialed it back to a few Netflix rentals. The profound mood shift was something of an unintended consequence.)

Grave of the Fireflies doesn’t have any particularly unreal sequences which could only be realized as anime, but it’s still well-served by the art form due to the level of abstraction that the imagery is able to achieve. There’s a repeating motif of tiny, glowing light sources in the air, varied by color. The blue-green palette is used for the fireflies, while the red palette comes into play for the firebombs dropped by U.S. warplanes and the embers and ashes that swirl in the wind as villages burn. The contrast of ideas could not be more stark, but the images mirror each other nevertheless, in a way that it’s hard to imagine working quite so well, or so hauntingly, in a live-action (with or without CGI) context.

That’s my big praise-point for the movie. My biggest gripe with it is, to a certain extent, my own fault. I’m often torn when watching anime as to how I should approach the dialogue: original Japanese with subtitles, or overdubbed in English? I’m a fast enough reader that I don’t particularly mind subtitles, and to a certain extent the purist in me knows that the original soundtrack is likely to have emotional nuance more true to the director’s vision, which I can pick up in tone of voice as I scan the translations. But given a choice I tend to find the narrative experience more immersive if the characters are speaking English. That’s the route I went with Grave of the Fireflies, but that might have been a mistake, if only because they cast an adult woman as the four-year-old Setsuko, doing what may very well be the most annoying babytalk voice ever recorded. I was tempted to watch the movie again in Japanese to see if the original actress was less grating, except that this is one of those films that is so depressing that I could never bring myself to watch it again.

The death of innocence is an unavoidable fact of life, and I get that, but it’s a brutal one as well, and while it’s important to acknowledge reality and not hide from the unpleasant aspects of it, it’s still incredibly difficult to meditate on grief and despair. Especially when the grief and despair is brought on not by the unpredictable nature of an unknowable, uncontrollable universe, but by man’s inhumanity to man, waging war that mindlessly cuts down civilians in the crossfire. And when you increase the sense of suffering by illustrating it with the gruesome death by starvation of a very young girl, the experience is utterly harrowing. There are important distinctions within the human concept of innocence’s impermanence. When children grow up into adults and lose their wide-eyed wonder, it’s sad but inevitable, part of the order of things, and we grapple with it as best we can. When children don’t grow up at all because they die very young, it strikes us a violation or order, and there’s virtually no way to find meaning in it. If you judge art by its ability to provoke an emotional reaction, then Grave of the Fireflies is powerful, transcendent art. It also ceases to be entertainment after passing a certain threshold of awful reckoning, but maybe not everything is supposed to be entertaining.

I have a deep and abiding affection for the book A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius by David Eggers. I’ve met other people who loved it, as well as people who hated it, but fundamentally I identify with the emotional core of the book. My relationship, and for that matter relative age difference, with my Very Little Bro is similar to the one between David and his brother Topher, notwithstanding the fact that David winds up the nominal guardian of Topher when both his parent succumb to cancer, whereas both my parents are still alive and well, merely divorced. Still, even before I ever read Staggering Work I was not immune to the occasional morbid fantasy of having to become my baby brother’s caretaker if we were suddenly orphaned. Obviously the connection here is that Grave of the Fireflies is also about an older sibling taking care of a much younger one when their parents are absent, but in Grave of the Fireflies things are ultimately simplified. The older brother never feels resentful of the responsibility fate or circumstance has imposed on him. He never loses his temper with his little sister, never shows her anything but unconditional love. And yet she dies anyway. Maybe it’s an eastern thing, and difficult to square with my western sensibilities, but it seems unbearably grim to depict that kind of saintly, unwavering love in its failure to conquer all (even without my propensity for overidentification with protagonists assuming responsibility for much younger siblings). I can understand a story where the caretaking takes its own toll until the main character explodes and lashes out at the younger sibling, which in turn has disastrous consequences, and the moral of the story is that even when life seems unfair you have to love and be kind to those who mean the most to you or you’ll regret it when it’s too late. But in Grave of the Fireflies, the moral seems to be that even if you do nothing wrong, you can still suffer immeasurable, ruinous loss.

I always try to do a little bit of background research on movies between the time I finish watching them and the time I start blogging about them. One of the more interesting factoids I ran across was that Isao Takahata, who adapted and directed the film, actively resisted the classification of Grave of the Fireflies as an anti-war film. This basically blows my mind. It’s a story about a fourteen-year-old boy Seita and his four-year-old sister Setsuko. At the beginning of the flashback, early in 1945, their father is serving on a Japanese naval vessel. A bombing raid on their village grievously injures their mother, and she dies shortly thereafter. The children go live with a distant relative, who slowly but surely becomes more bitter and resentful toward the children because they are two extra mouths to feed in a time of rationing and other wartime deprivations. The children run away and try living on their own in a nearby bomb shelter, first by trading their few possessions for food (though very few people have surplus to trade, due to the war), then by stealing unharvested crops (often rotten or moldy), and ultimately by withdrawing their mother’s life savings to buy a meal. Just as he gets the money from the bank, Seita is horrified to find out that the Empire has unconditionally surrendered, and his father is most likely dead as the Japanese fleet has been almost entirely destroyed. He gets back to Setsuko just before she slips into a coma. She dies of malnutrition, and shortly thereafter Seita dies of a broken heart.

Clearly Takahata did not turn the novel into a pro-war movie by any-stretch, but apparently he thinks that within the story of the film the war is beside the point. I couldn’t disagree more. As I said above, the terrible things that befall the siblings - losing their father, their mother, their home, their innocence and their lives - are not their fault. But they can all be traced back to the war, and in short, straight lines at that. How anyone could view Grave of the Fireflies without seriously questioning if there’s anything that can ever justify war, I simply don’t know. The whole film is a reminder that there’s a reason why War is considered the first of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It doesn’t simply affect balances of power or political boundaries, it destroys lives (and far more lives than those of young men called to the front lines) and sometimes entire ways of life. And at least half the time, any war fought by any group of people is ultimately a futile effort when that group is defeated. The cost of war is appallingly high when the cause is righteous and its aims are achieved. When the final cost is the same if not greater but the aims are forsaken? That seems like a horrific, noxious joke.

But the fact that jokes like that shouldn’t be told doesn’t mean that they aren’t, and every now and then pausing to contemplate them can be a worthwhile part of our experiences in this life. There’s a danger in becoming so complacent that we let ourselves forget the suffering of others. I don’t advocate spending every waking moment bemoaning the fate of every child who’s an orphan of war or something equally miserable. But ignoring the ugly and uncomfortable aspects of the world around us is no answer, either. I’m still working on what exactly the answer is, but I’m pretty sure it’s not that.

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