Some of the greatest heartbreakers and tearjerkers in film history belong to the animation genre. Animation, a genre that was always meant to be targeted at younger audiences, has now become another way of delivering very emotional and thematically powerful subject matters to the big screen. Once upon a time, Walt Disney developed the idea of telling certain stories such as fairy tales by drawing them on paper and editing them out in order for them to be more accessible to children. Soon enough, animation turned into this massive genre that is now one of the most successful ones at the box office. Movies like Up, Finding Nemo, Inside Out were all major hits critically acclaimed by audiences, critics and award shows. However, these movies wouldn’t have the same character and body if not for a genre like anime, the Japanese animation. And one of the best examples to demonstrate this is Grave of Fireflies.
Believe me, I’ve never been a fan of anime. I appreciate the imagination, the effort and true professionalism that go with it but usually its themes are way too distant for me. Hayao Miyazaki, for example, is in my opinion one of the very best directors and artists of the late 20th century, early 21st. His movies, such as Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro are grand accomplishments but I’ve never been fond of the supernatural and the way it is used to tell a certain story. It just doesn’t hit me where it should. However, I found Isao Tahakata’s Grave of Fireflies (1988) to be exactly what I wanted to see in order to become a fan of the genre. Don’t think it’s kids’ stuff. It’s not, and it was never meant to be made for children. It is the story of a fourteen year old Japanese boy and his younger baby sister who try to survive on their own in the war torn Japan of 1945. In the very first scene Seita, the brother, speaks to us in a sombre tone: “I died on September 21st, 1945.” That’s not the way to start off a kids’ movie, huh? It’s a warning. It’s a warning for the viewer not to dismiss the movie’s emotional quality just because of the way it is depicted. It is more of a challenge. And indeed, this film is just as powerful as any live action feature, be it Schindler’s List, Sophie’s Choice or even Platoon. It is extremely relentless in the way it keeps sending punches towards us and showing no mercy for its characters. Seita and Setsuko are on their own. And they have to fight to get through each day.
There is something in anime that you can’t find in other animation features such as those that are nowadays produced by Pixar or Disney. Anime lives and breathes because of symbolism, imagery and texture. An object like a glass bottle or a cough drops tin can aren’t just simple objects. There is always something standing right behind them, offering a much more emotional message than most of those typical Hollywood ending speeches where all the characters find inner peace, harmony and comfort. In anime everything is meaningful. A simple gust of wind can symbolize loneliness, yearning or sadness. A house on fire can express a character’s anger, frustration or troubled past (similarly to most Kurosawa movies). Tahakata, the director, wanted to make his characters look and feel miserable in order for audiences to understand them better. This objective could only be achieved with the use of animation and animation had to posses soft colors and a delicate palette so that the contrast between childhood and war would be more visible. Fire is soft red, almost orange. Water is light blue, almost transparent. Every storyboard is so expertly crafted that there is a contrast in almost every frame, be it a contrast of perspective, of size or character. It’s always there and it proves exactly my point: that this kind of animation has the ability of expressing itself much better than most movies nowadays. Today we go watch a movie in the theater and most of the time we have no idea what is going on until the very end of it and not because of its complex message or twist ending but because of how it is presented to us. Most directors nowadays cut their movies up in such fashion that a frame lasts a maximum of 2-3 seconds whether as Alfred Hitchcock’s frames lasted a good 6-9 seconds. In Grave of Fireflies the message is chaotic, wrapped in a cloud of fire and riddled with bullets by the omnipresent war but there is still something very calm and peaceful about it. About the way it feels when we look at it and the way it expresses its warmth in a terrifying manner. There is no rush. No alarm bell ringing in the distance. It’s quiet. A relationship between a loving older brother and a younger sister never felt more real.
By the end of it, you’ll be drowning in tears asking yourself how is it possible to make something this tough with the simple use of a pen and paper.