It’s always fascinating to look back at the radical transformations that have influenced one’s attitudes and habits while growing up.
Just like most kids around the world, animations for me were always synonymous with the Disney machine. “Aladdin, “Peter Pan, “The Little Mermaid and – most of all – “The Lion King were all part of my childhood. A space for escapism, fantasy and wish fulfillment, the Mickey Mouse company lured children into its world, with prents approving the sugar-coated principles these films embraced.
But an international broadcasting class I took in college demolished what was left of my faith in Disney. Studying the subliminal messages in these movies was staggering. Over the decades, Disney succeeded in building a global cultural empire.
Disney was not merely a film company, it was the embodiment of American capitalism and consumerism.
This is why discovering the world of Anime was a revelation for me. Anime refers to Japanese animation and comic book adaptations (Manga) founded at the beginning of the last century, which flourished in the 70s and 80s.
Anime was worlds away from Disney. If the former offered a vast wasteland of fantasy, the latter presented a limitless landscape for imagination. “Akira and “My Neighbor Totoro, the hallmarks of the genre released in the late 80s, blended philosophy and elements of Japanese culture with fantastical storylines where anything can happen. The unconventional paths taken by the characters and plotlines of these films placed them in a league of their own. This later encouraged French, British and Belgian animations to embrace their own cultures, deviating from the Disney formula.
“Grave of the Fireflies, the third film released alongside “Totoro and “Akira in 1988, was a different story.
“Grave is, first and foremost, a tragic war movie about two children who failed to survive the aftermath of the raids that shattered Japan prior to its occupation by US forces in 1945.
The film opens with a trembling body of a 14-year-old boy lying helplessly in a train station as passengers pass by in utter indifference. The boy (Seita) dies quietly before his spirit slowly ascends and reunites with the ghost of his four-year-old sister (Setsuko). The pair go for a short drive, watching the world they’re about to leave behind and remembering the excruciating months following the death of their mother.
“Grave plays along the lines of Italian neo-realism films of the 40s. Solid resolution is not what the film seeks. It’s more of a semi-poetic essay on the children s decline, from belonging to a moderately privileged family to the state of absolute destitution they eventually reach.
Seita and Setsuko find themselves in a world where compassion and kindness are as scarce food. After the death of their mother, the two kids are briefly put in their aunt s custody. She provides them with a bag of rice in exchange for their mother’s garments. When they run out of valuable possessions, the pair is pressured to either look for their Navy officer father or work for food. They soon discover their father has been killed in combat.
Seita decides they should leave their aunt and move into an abandoned bomb shelter, and thus begins their downward spiral to death.
The film is based on a 1967 semi-autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka whose sister died of starvation during the war. The constant trials of food-hunting forced him to feed himself first before he could reach his sister. For several decades, Nosaka was tattered with an unyielding feeling of guilt based on the erroneous choices he made.
The film is concerned with the children s plight and the consequences of war rather than depicting the graphic horrors of it.
Animation, in general, stand for a form of heightened, simplified reality and “Grave is no different. Because everything is seen through the eyes of the kids, the emotional realism is thoroughly genuine and even more heartbreaking.
The innocence of Seita and Setsuko are laid in contrast to all the destruction surrounding them and the film accurately documents their helpless reaction to a morbid world they can’t fathom.
There is tremendous beauty in the joyful, life-affirming moments the pair share like playing on the beach or catching air bubbles.
The central scene, and the most lyrical one, involves the two catching fireflies to illuminate their cave. The next morning Setsuko buries them and asks her brother a question that continues to linger afterwards: “Why do fireflies die so young?
The film is lined with many visual pauses reminiscent of the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu that lay down all the grief, pain and bliss in silent sequences of piercing impact.
“Grave of the Fireflies is, on the surface, a film about grief. At the heart of the film though is a story about an instinctive bond between brother and sister, so strong that death ultimately fails to conquer it.
The profound sadness and unshakable sorrow that prevails isn’t a result of the pain and misfortunes that befall them, but of love, happiness and purity gone to waste.
Catch “Grave of the Fireflies tomorrow at the Japanese Culture Center, 6 pm. Tel: (02) 2795 3962.