It’s not implausible to imagine that most people are only familiar with anime because of Studio Ghibli. Few companies have done more to promote Japanese animation to larger audiences, and the success was realised in 2002 when Spirited Away won the Academy Award for best animated feature. Studio Ghibli is having a hiatus following the retirement of Hayao Miyazaki, and so Dendy Cinemas hosted a showcase of four films and two documentaries.
Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
What is it about atrocities that draw our attention and imagination? Grave of the Fireflies is set during WWII in Japan. A young boy, Seita, cares for his younger sister, Setsuko, when the firebombing of his village results in the death of their mother. Forced to flee, Seita takes Setsuko to live with their father’s sister. When things don’t work out with their aunt, they decide to camp out by themselves, stealing food, scrounging, and struggling with Setsuko’s creeping illness. From the western perspective, the big story of Japan in WWII is the dropping of the H-bomb. The enormity of the event eclipses the fact that people were dying of starvation in Japan throughout the war.
It’s this thought which pervades a lot of contemporary discussion about atrocities. The number of people who died on 9/11 was far fewer than the number of people who died that day from malnutrition. The number of people who died when the plane was shot down over Ukraine was far fewer than the number of women killed by their partners. But we don’t respond to these disasters clinically and dispassionately. Social hurt isn’t a by-the-numbers affair, and the sheer brutality of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings simply shocks our sensibilities far more than ordinary death by starvation.
From another standpoint, this is a film about how social relations broke down during the war. Seita and Setsuko die because they can’t resolve the disagreement with their aunt. The aunt is clearly horrid, but Seita is proud. At what point could Seita swallow his pride and go back to his aunt? By the time Setsuko is dying — when he needs his family the most — he is least able to admit that he was incapable of looking after her. From the moment that Seita allows his aunt to sell his mother’s clothing, the inevitable tension between family members unravels and Seita has utterly no power to seek redress against his aunt. We expect younger generations to take responsibility and mature quickly, yet we deny them any power to protect their interests against exploitation. The older generations therefore have a responsibility to create a meaningful, supportive framework that allows younger generations to control their destinies, in turn creating an obligation for the younger generations to respect and maintain them. The aunt’s failure to do so has no negative impact upon her life — the younger generation ends up paying for her failure.
My Neighbour Totoro (1988)
To-to-ro Totoro. I don’t understand a goddamn thing about this movie and yet I still love it. CATBUS.
My Neighbour Totoro seems to combine elements of Alice in Wonderland — following a white rabbit, a translocating cat, falling down animal holes — with an animistic sentimentality. The world is alive and ready to be explored by two wonderful little kids.
The threat in the film — the mother’s illness — is strangely at odds with the film, which is filled with supernatural creatures. It’s not the monsters, demons, and sprites of the world that pose a threat, it’s their mother’s illness. The fantastic sits at such stark odds to the mundane, creating an environment in which the girls struggle to understand why the world is unfair when it’s also beautiful.
The Wind Rises (2013)
The Japanese were clearly among the bad guys in WWII, so it must be extremely difficult to be a subsequent generation trying to reconcile that period with current feelings of national pride. Australia deals with its problematic past mostly by trying to ignore it. In The Wind Rises, Miyazaki tries to focus on the small, beautiful, amazing things that happened within the context of horror. He presents the great engineer, Jiro Horikoshi, as an affably naive young man with a passion for beautiful planes. That these planes will be used to bomb the hell out of innocent people isn’t really a concern for Jiro — he just wants to be inspired by nature to design beautiful planes.
Biopics tend to be shit, as I’ve asserted in the past. It’s impossible to create any real sense of drama when history will play out exactly as it did in the history books. You don’t watch The Iron Lady wondering if Thatcher will become Prime Minister, and you don’t watch this film wondering if Japan will win the war (spoiler: it doesn’t). Where The Wind Rises succeeds is as a character study: why did this brilliant idealist go down the path of making war machines? Because he was stone stupid when it came to worldly matters.
Despite erasing the context from this character study, I still love it and the philosophy behind it. We owe a debt to a past filled with atrocities, abominations, and utter fuck ups. It is not good enough to simply condemn our predecessors as monsters who deserve nothing but scorn. Instead, we owe it to them to present both sides of their world, and The Wind Rises presents those nuggets of excellence amid the mountains of terribleness that was Japan pre-1947. Weirdly, by doing this, we also make the intellectual space to critique the negative aspects of that history in a new light: atoning for the past isn’t a simplistic two hour hate affair, but more authentic because it includes awareness of the good amongst the evil. The past isn’t a B-grade monster of the week affair that’s easy to hate, but a creature who is complex with shades of grey and a few patches of excellence.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013)
There are few things that I love more than hating on Baby Boomers, and reconstructing fairytales is among them. It’s so great. Take an old story from your culture and repurpose it. Spin a story in a new way to view old concepts in a new light. This is but one of the many reasons why I was so disappointed with Wicked the novel — he was doing my favourite genre and he still managed to stuff it up. It was one of the many reasons why I loved the utter shittiness that was Noah.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya looks at two parts of an old story about a bamboo cutter who finds a moon princess in a stalk of bamboo. The first is how an ordinary person would respond to becoming suddenly wealthy. The second is how the girl herself responds to being objectified and worshipped.
When the bamboo cutter finds Kaguya, she looks just like a tiny princess. She glows, serene, like a doll. The moment his wife touches Kaguya, she turns into a screaming baby who is hungry and needs changing. For the rest of the film, the bamboo cutter’s inability to see Kaguya as anything other than a tiny princess will heavily influence his actions.
Such as when the bamboo forest reveals other treasures for Kaguya — vast amounts of gold and fine dresses. The old man understands that Kaguya must be some kind of heavenly gift, and that the gold and the dresses are there to ensure Kaguya is able to live a luxurious life in the city among nobles. But Kaguya wants the life that she’s (rapidly) growing into. A simple existence playing in the woods with local children, making things, and hunting. The heavens don’t think in the way that ordinary people do: it’s a cold, decontextualised logic. The gifts are provided to make Kaguya happy — instead, they prompt actions when ensure the opposite occurs. The heavens cause Kaguya to be sent to a simple farmer and his wife where she would be happy, but the old man doesn’t have the wisdom or insight to respond to newfound wealth.
Kaguya tries to find ways of rebelling, but always feels bound to the social pressure of not disappointing the old man. This opens up an exploration of how social relations transform from healthy versions to toxic versions. The old man wants what is best for Kaguya but this means identifying what this ‘best’ is and how to go about achieving it. In order to rebel against the old man, Kaguya must state that she doesn’t want what is best for her and that she is ungrateful for the old man trying to obtain what is best for her.
Kaguya cannot handle being objectified by the old man and the other men of the city (high ranking men, including the emperor). At first, she plays with them and sets them impossible tasks but the men feel increasingly entitled to have her, resulting in the emperor forcing himself upon Kaguya. It’s at this point that Kaguya calls it quits and gets caught between staying on earth with her new family and going back to the moon where the rollercoaster of emotions won’t affect her.
There’s an inevitability about this film: Kaguya will never find her place because everybody is operating to deny her a place. Although the old man sees her as this ideal girl, he reduces her capacity to effect any sort of meaningful control over her life. The gifts from heaven designed to make her life comfortable trigger the sequence of events that result in her misery. The only conclusion open to her is to leave and shed the conflict. There is some irony that the ideal heaven is so rigidly structured. There’s no aspiration or Sisyphean fight against the boulder because everybody has a place within the structure.
It’s a beautiful film, and probably the best of the showcase.