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Tony Grist

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The Grave Of The Fireflies [Apr. 7th, 2005|09:07 am]
Tony Grist
The Grave of the Fireflies is the saddest thing. And it's a cartoon film. Not an American or European cartoon film of course. Japanese. For some reason the West has got it in its head that animation means kids and comedy. I don't know why, but I expect it has something to do with the market dominance, through the whole of the sound era, of the Disney corporation.

Grave of the Fireflies is about two children dying of malnutrition in Tokyo at the end of WWII. (I'm not giving anything away here- the ending is the beginning and the main story is told in flashback.) Apart from some ghostly appearances (very Japanese) it's like an Italian neo-realist movie in its quiet and utterly inexorable march towards the pre-ordained conclusion. It takes a neo-realist view of human nature too. There are no villains; no-one is to blame. People behave unkindly, but they're all under pressure. Food is short, the bombers are flying over daily and the children just sort of slip through a net which, by this stage of the proceedings, has great ragged holes in it.

It's been said the film is anti-American. Well, it's the Americans who are dropping the bombs. But that's a fact of history and I don't see how it can be massaged away. And the movie-makers are well-aware how it was Japan's own imperialistic madness that brought her to this point. No-one individually is to blame, but everyone is implicated in the hubris and self-deception- including, in their innocent and uncomprehending way- the children themselves, who are the son and daughter of a proud naval officer.

I don't suppose any film has better caught the horror of aerial bombardment. The planes drone in- impassive steel pterodactyls- and fire rains down. The killing is indiscriminate, detached, scientifically ingenious. I have never understood (and I'm going off on one of my hobby-horses here) why it's considered wicked to deliver explosives in a body-belt or hi-jacked car but righteous to drop them from a plane. Is it simply because one is the way of the dispossessed and the other the way of the powerful? Or does it somehow absolve you of responsibility for your victims if you don't know who they are?

It's amazing how quickly our culture got over its initial squeamishness about aerial bombing. When Hitler's Condor legion killed civilians at Guernica during the Spanish Civil War there was international outrage and Picasso painted a memorial picture which is the greatest piece of public art of the 20th century. But just a few years later both sides in the Second World War were dropping bombs on civilian targets as a matter of course. And ever since then, bombing has been the world's preferred way of waging war. We intend to liberate Iraq? Sadly this will involve bombing her cities to buggery first, destroying her infrastructure and killing her children- thousands upon thousands of them.

The Grave Of The Fireflies ends with the ghosts of the two children looking down from a hill on the skyscrapers of modern Tokyo. Never forget how this shining civilisation of ours is built on the graves of the innocent.

Never forget.

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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-04-07 03:36 am (UTC)
I was crying too. It's not often a film gets under my skin like that.
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[User Picture]From: jenny_evergreen
2005-04-07 05:04 am (UTC)
I think I'll have to get a copy.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-04-07 07:58 am (UTC)
Be prepared to weep- copiously.
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[User Picture]From: solar_diablo
2005-04-07 06:59 am (UTC)
I'll have to look for it. Another good one is Ghost in the Shell for its existentialist delvings into what makes a human...human.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-04-07 07:59 am (UTC)
I'll check out Ghost in the Shell.
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[User Picture]From: jackiejj
2005-04-07 07:13 am (UTC)
Thank you.

I watched the film without thinking of the greater issues involved. I simply identified with the children and wished one person--the doctor? the woman in her house?--might have been kind.

Pearl Buck's wonderful Dragon Seed is a similar story about the horrors of war, how innocence is brutalized by it. There is one scene--well, here it is:

How then could Ling Tan be prepared for the next day? It was a day like any other.

It was at mid-morning that he heard the noise of flying ships ... He looked up and he saw the sun shining upon the silver creatures in the sky, not solitary as he had always seen them, but many of them and moving with such grace as he had only seen before in wild geese, flying south across the autumn sky. ...

And then they saw a silver fragment come out of one and drift down while the ships went on. Down the silver fragment dropped, slanting a little toward the east, and it fell into a field of rice. A fountain of dark earth flew up and this they all saw, still without any fear or knowledge.

In simple eagerness to see the thing they ran toward the field, Ling Tan and his sons among the rest...They could not find it...one or two bits of metal they did find, and there was the hole, and the man who owned the field laughed as he stared down into the hole.

"I have wanted a pond on my land for ten years and never had time to dig it and here it is," he said joyfully, and they decided together that such was the purpose of these machines, to dig ponds and wells and waterways where they were wanted. Thirty paces the pond was one way and a little longer the other, and every man paced it off to make sure and envied the man into whose field it had fallen.

So busy were they in this that it was not until their first wonder was over that they thought to hear and to see what was now going on. Then one man did hear over the city these same sounds that had made this hole, and he looked up and saw over the city wall a good three miles away, the rolling smoke as though of great fires. One by one peaks of smoke rose into the still air, slowly, for there was no wind, and they curled upward like black thunder clouds.

"Now what?" Ling Tan called, but no one answered, for none knew. They stood together, so alike in their blue coats that one man looked like another, and watched.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-04-07 08:05 am (UTC)
The kindest adult character is, oddly enough, the village policeman who threaten's the boy's assailant with a charge of assault.

I bought Dragon Seed on you recommendation and it's sitting in my in-tray. So many books! Right now I'm making my way through The Life And Death of Peter Sellers which weighs in at over 1000 pages.
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[User Picture]From: seaslug_of_doom
2005-04-07 08:38 am (UTC)
Ah, Grave of the Fireflies. Yes, yes, marvelous film. I want to recommend to you anything by Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-04-07 01:01 pm (UTC)
Thanks. Anime is such a huge field; it's good to have recommendations.
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From: egilsdottir
2005-04-07 11:02 am (UTC)
i need to see this.

when i worked for the japanese consulate in chicago, people (americans)often sent japanese flags from WWII that a recently passed-on grandfather, uncle, etc. had taken from a japanese soldier (presumably after said soldier's death, as a prize, of sorts). they sent the flags to the consulate to see if the japanese government could track down any living relatives of the dead japanese solider to see if they would like it back, and if no family was found, to put the flag on display in a museum or the like.

but one day someone sent the skull -- the painted skull -- of a japanese soldier. i don't know the backstory on it, but for a few seconds it made me ashamed to be american, knowing that an american soldier had possibly beheaded a japanese solider, removed his skull, painted it, and then held onto it as a keepsake. but then i realized that it probably had more to do with human beings acting violently, nation of origin be damned. still, the memory of that day and seeing the skull will remain forever etched in my mind.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-04-08 01:14 am (UTC)
People do foul things in war. When I was a kid I was taught to hate the Japanese for the way they'd treated our prisoners of war (Bridge Over the River Kwai and all that.) I was encouraged to think of them as sub-human barbarians- worse even than the Germans (who were at least Europeans.) It was a lie, or more accurately a half truth. Our troops out east did things just as bad.
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From: morrison_maiden
2005-04-07 11:06 am (UTC)
I've never seen this film. I've never really watched any Japanese animated films before, but they seem to be much more sophistocated than America's cartoons. Most of our clever cartoons were made 60 years ago, I think.

It's always amazing how grownup Japanese animation really is. It must be a very well-made film to be so engrossing and relevant for adults too.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-04-08 01:17 am (UTC)
I think Western animation is improving. I like the recent Pixar movies- they're smart and inventive- though they are still stuck with frenetic comedy plots that hark back to the Keystone Kops.

Actually the best Western animation is on TV. There's still nothing to touch the Simpsons.
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