Category: Anime Drama


A film that is about children is not necessarily a film for children. The live-action adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are is more a reminiscence on the beauty and horror of childhood (as well as divorce) than it is something specifically meant to entertain kids. While it may have elements that appeal to children, I still contend that Toy Story 3 was truly meant to be enjoyed and appreciated by those who were children when the first film came out. A tragic meditation on the horrors of war and the human consequences of decisions like fire-bombing a small sea-side town does not seem like fodder for your typical children’s film. However, the legendary Studio Ghibli (Howl’s Moving Castle) took that risk and it surely paid off. For if Grave of the Fireflies isn’t one of the most emotionally powerful animated films you’ve ever seen, you may be broken on the inside.

Grave of the Fireflies isn’t just one of the best animated films I’ve seen; it is one of the most harrowing and heartbreaking war films ever made. Set in the waning days of World War II, Seita (Tsutomu Tatsumi) and Setsuko (Ayano Shiraishi) are orphans who lost their mother in the fire-bombing of Kobe, Japan. Their father is in the navy but it is unclear whether he is alive or part of the annihilation of virtually the entire Japanese fleet. It doesn’t matter. You never see or hear from him. Although Seita and Setsuko are originally allowed to live with an aunt, her greed and uncharitable attitude towards the two children (Seita is  a young teenager. Setsuko is four five) to run away and attempt to make it on their own. Though they are able to find sustenance at first, it becomes quickly apparent that Seita and Setsuko won’t be able to make it on their own.

This is not a children’s movie. Although the film’s director claimed during it’s release that it was meant to be a reminder to Japanese youth (who in the 80s were experiencing record levels of juvenile delinquency) of the tragedies that befell their parents and grandparents, this is an anti-war film through and through. Children’s movies don’t generally cause the viewer to have his hands over his face in horror for the entire film. Children’s films may make you cry (The Iron Giant, Toy Story 3, Up), but they don’t leave you feeling nearly dead inside when the film is done. Grave of the Fireflies was heart-wrenching to the point that it caused me physical pain to watch the movie. Not since The Road have I sat through a film so emotionally powerful. If the notion of two children struggling (and failing) to survive in war-torn Japan sounds tough to bear, it’s cause it will be. I’m crying writing about the film.

Grave of the Fireflies joins that rare breed of film which offers almost nothing in the way of “entertainment” and is instead meant to horrify and educate its viewers. It sends a very potent political message (even if the screen-writer/director claims that wasn’t his intent), and if you’ve ever celebrated the U.S.’s actions in Japan during World War II, this film will remind you of the human costs of that victory. When you discover that most of the film is a true story (it’s an adaptation of a semi-autobiographical novel), it becomes nearly too real to handle. The film is full to the brim of tiny details that speak to the real-life horror that the novel’s author, Akiyuki Nosaka, suffered along with his sister and countless other Japanese orphans who fell through the cracks during the last months of the war. Along with Das Boot, it is one of the only war films that completely avoids any accidental glorification of war. It is pure horror.

The film’s animation is stunning. Whether it’s capturing the horror of the bombings, the physical degradation that Seita and Setsuko suffer due to malnutrition, or the rare moments of beauty the film offers, the animation always complements the action on screen. The film uses a recurring firefly visual motif which represents the impermanence of life (it’s both a Japanese cultural symbol as well as a visual concept that is readily apparent even to cultural outsiders), and the fireflies show up in one of the rare uplifting moments of the film (which is of course subverted shortly thereafter to break your heart again). Seita and Setsuko have moved to a small shelter inside a hillside. It’s dark and Setsuko is scared so Seita captures dozens of fireflies in a pot and releases them into the cave (which they can’t leave because of mosquito nettings). It’s simply a gorgeous and happy moment which are fleeting and rare, and the film instantly reminds you what kind of movie you’re watching when Setsuko has to bury them all in the very next scene.

The film also makes great use of color and moments of visual poetry that transform the scenes from simple visual representations of what happened Nosaka’s life into something more artistic. Without wanting to spoil some of the more tragic aspects of the film, the movie makes great use of tinting and color-wash to let us know what events are occurring and when moments are perceived more as spiritual and ethereal. The film’s score is also hauntingly effective as there’s a moment towards the end of the film where Seita and Setsuko’s suffering has become total where you see a different family return to their home, unbroken and with all of their belongings (and family) intact, and their record player sets off a gut-wrenching version of “Home Sweet Home.”

If I had to look for flaws in the movie, the obvious one is that Setsuko and Seita are never actually characterized. Instead, they’re meant to be the ultimate sympathetic constructs for the viewers to imprint their heartbreak and horror on. Some might accuse the director of trying to manipulate the audience’s emotion, but since so much of the film is true, he can avoid that charge. This film, once and for all, settles any debate as to whether or not anime can be considered the equal of the “purer” art of live-action cinema (or Western animation). Considering that this film is a truer and more unbearable representation of war than many so-called serious, live-action war films, I think the conversation is pretty much moot. Everyone needs to watch this movie, regardless of how you feel about anime. My only recommendation is that you have several boxes of tissues handy. You’re going to need them.

Final Score: A

Advertisements

Neon Genesis Evangelion. Just the mention of the series is sure to prompt a massive debate between anime fans. The only anime series to garner more critical attention and scholarly analysis is the universally loved Cowboy Bebop, and Neon Genesis Evangelion is equally likely to prompt fans to call it the greatest anime of all time as it for it to cause its detractors to name it an over-rated, pretentious, and muddled mess. I’ve only watched about half of the series in the past so I don’t have a stake in this debate though my initial impression of the show was that it was one of the most starkly psychological and character-driven anime series that I had ever watched. Studio Gainax is responsible for two of the anime series I’ve reviewed so far, FLCL and Gurren Lagann. Those series are marked as the happier and angst free alternatives to the depression and alienation driven stories of Neon Genesis Evangelion (which was made at the height of creator Hideaki Anno’s own personal battle with depression). While the dark and dismal tone that propels much of the action of NGE is potentially not for everyone, for people that are searching for an intelligent and well-written alternative to your average shonen fighting program, NGE should be right up your alley as it manages to deconstruct every aspect of the mecha subgenre of anime (at least until it became the trope codifier of mecha shows) and crafts a remarkable cast of characters that feel more alive and memorable than nearly every other anime out there.

The basic premise of Neon Genesis Evangelion is a near future Earth where a cataclysmic event known as the “Second Impact” (which hasn’t really been explained yet) wiped out a large amount of the Earth’s population and caused drastic climate change and upheaval. Earth has slowly started to recover, and in the city of New Tokyo-3, the U.N. funded agency known as NERV has been tasked with protecting what remains of humanity from a mysterious alien force that has been attacking over the years. Known as Angels, these eldritch abominations can’t be stopped by conventional weapons and only the top secret robots known as Evangelion (or EVAs for short) can defeat them. 14 year old Shinji Ikari is called to Tokyo-3 by his father, the head of the Evangelion project (and a man Shinji hasn’t spoken to in years), to pilot one of the EVA units and fight off the alien forces invading Earth. Shinji isn’t a trained soldier. On the contrary, he’s just a kid (and an emotionally scarred one at that). When tasked with the defense of humanity, Shinji breaks down and refuses his call to arms. Only when he realizes that the alternative is another 14 year old, a girl so physically broken that she can no longer walk, does Shinji step into the EVA unit. Once again, not trained in how to fight, Shinji freezes in battle and is demolished by the first Angel he encounters. After his mind completely snaps under the stress of battle, the EVA seemingly acts on its own and saves Shinji’s life (and that of everyone in Tokyo-3) by defeating the Angel.

Serving alongside Shinji in NERV (besides his estranged father) are Captain Misato Katsuragi, Doctor Ritsuko Akagi, and Rei Ayanami. Misato is Shinji’s direct superior in the EVA program and the only one who understands just how deeply broken this child is. Though Misato intentionally puts forth a ditzy and laid back demeanor, she’s a serious alcoholic and is as prone to troubled inner monologues and angst as Shinji. Recognizing the kindred spirit (in terms of pain) she has in Shinji, they quickly become room mates so that Shinji won’t have to live on his own in this town (because his father wants nothing to do with him besides using him for work). Ritsuko is one of the head scientists of NERV. She’s been given the least character development so far. As of yet, she seems to only be a cynical and cold woman. Rei is the only other EVA pilot besides Shinji. If Shinji is a scarred and emotionally fractured child, Rei is a vase that’s been thrown against the wall and completely shattered. Outside of her work as an EVA pilot, she speaks to absolutely no one at the school that she and Shinji attends and appears capable of displaying absolutely no emotion except when it comes to Shinji’s father. While Shinji’s dad cares absolutely nothing about his son, he has been willing to risk injury to protect Rei, and the only time that Rei has shown any emotion the entire series is when Shinji insulted his father and Rei proceeded to slap Shinji.

The show is absolutely rife with religious and psychological symbolism to the point that if you freeze frame any of the more important moments of an episode, you’re liable to notice at least one bit of Freudian sexual symbology or Christian iconography. In the opening credits alone, you see the Kabbalah symbol of Sephiroth (which to be fair was also heavily used in Full Metal Alchemist) and whenever the first Angel is finally defeated, you see a giant cross (on several different occasions). Shinji is accosted by the severed head of his EVA unit early on (these machines take a serious beating) and if I wasn’t supposed to see vaginal symbolism when its eye first opened, then I might need to see a shrink about reading too deeply into scenes. Sexuality is in fact one of the larger themes of the series (though it hasn’t gotten quite as apparent at this point), and the painful awkwardness of Shinji going through his own sexual awakening cna be very difficult to watch. However, the most prominent themes of these opening episodes are alienation and the psychological costs of being a child soldier. There’s an entire episode which centers around Shinji totally running away from his own responsibilities and riding around trains and buses and the countryside in total and debilitating despair. By the time Shinji fights his second Angel, he’s basically a shell of a child who does everything asked of him without question (0r any emotion) and goes absolutely bat-shit crazy on an Angel when his fight or flight instincts finally kick in. Many anime have used the “determination” aspect as a way to show a sudden increase in skill or fighting ability. NGE completely deconstructs this plot device by showing just how damaged someone becomes when they are constantly pushed to these types of breaking points.

As much as I love the show’s story to this point (it’s one of the most mature anime of all time [and by mature I mean intelligent and thoughtful]), it’s animation could have used some work. This series is notorious for the fact that by the end of the show’s run, it had completely ran out of money, and the last several episodes featured many recycled shots and long still images rather than actual animation. While the series original episodes don’t have this problem quite as obviously and the major action sequences look totally awesome (it’s great that hte show can combine psychological drama and giant robots fighting), a healthy portion of any given episode is you looking at the exact same image for around half a minute while you hear copious amounts of exposition or character development. While some of these long stills look great from an artistic perspective, it sorts of draws attention to the fact that I’m watching a cartoon rather than immersing myself in the show’s world. NGE‘s plot is better than Full Metal Alchemist ever could be (and that’s my second favorite anime that I’m dissing) but at least FMA‘s art (in Brotherhood) always had my jaw on the floor about how beautiful the show looked. The character models in NGE look good from a conventional classic anime point of view, but there’s still nothing remarkable about this show’s art like there was with later Gainax programs like FLCL or Gurren Lagann.

If you’re an anime fan and you haven’t already watched Neon Genesis Evangelion, you need to go ahead and make it a priority. This is a great and challenging program (so far). Most of the controversy surrounding the fan (and what causes the divisions between its haters and its fans) doesn’t arise til closer to the series end, and I’m nowhere near there yet. As it is, Neon Genesis Evangelion remains one of the anime series (alongside Cowboy Bebop) that doesn’t make me feel guilty about still being a bit of an otaku even though I’m 22 years old (and just two months shy of being 23. shiver…). It’s smart and entertaining. You really can’t ask for more. And ever since Gurren Lagann, well-written programs about robots fighting other giant robots/creatures/aliens feeds directly on a strange pleasure principle. The only reason why you may not appreciate this show is if you haven’t seen any of the mecha shows that came before it. This series completely eviscerates so many of the genre conventions of those programs but unwittingly became the standard bearer for all future giant mecha shows. So, if you’ve only seen the robot programs that came after, you may not realize just how influential this program really was. Regardless though, this show deserves the attention of all anime fans who still haven’t somehow discovered this seinen classic.

Final Score: A-

Thanks to the disproportionate popularity and public awareness of programs like Dragon Ball Z, Gundam, Bleach, and Naruto, anime has developed a reputation of being nothing more than children’s programming where super heroes and robots use martial arts, explosions, and more sheer determination than you can shake a stick at to save the world from nondescript threats. How many people have been dis-swayed from watching a Hiyao Miyazaki film because they think all anime is the same, even if, in reality, Miyazaki makes some of the most beautiful children film’s this side of Pixar? How many people refuse to watch Cowboy Bebop, the best space western/space noir prior to Firefly, because they don’t think anime is actually capable of being artistically significant? The answer is far too many people. While even I enjoy the occasional action based anime like Gurren Lagann or Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, it’s the wide variety of the genre that really draws me in. Following an unconventional coming-of-age tale with a heavy lean towards science fiction, 2004’s The Place Promised in Our Early Days is another anime feature film that completely defies genre expectations while simultaneously providing an interesting (if perhaps too complex and confusing) tale to entertain the audience.

Set in an alternate Earth history where Japan was split into two after the second World War, with Japan controlling half the country and the United States the other half, The Place Promised in Our Early Days is a personal and emotional tale of friendship, love, and the forces that keep us apart. Set in the late 1990’s of this alternate timeline, we are introduced to Takuya and Hiroki, two young Japanese middle-schoolers that discover a downed drone aircraft and decide to rebuild it, in order to reach a nearly infinitely tall tower that grows in the American section of Japan. The boys befriend a strange girl named Sayuri (who may or may not have visions of the future) and together, the trio spend the summer working on their plane and being happy children. However, one day, Sayuri mysteriously disappears, and for three years, the boys not only hear from Sayuri, they grow apart from each other. Takuya becomes a scientist for the government while Hiroki remains in high school. Suddenly, the possible presence of Sayuri, the beginning of World War III, and other forces begin to draw Hiroki and Takuya back together so they can save Sayuri and possibly the world.

Before I get into some of the areas where I felt this film stumbled (which were unfortunately numerous), let me talk about some of the things I loved. First, the artwork in this film was absolutely gorgeous. You would be forgiven if you thought you had stepped onto the set of a Hiyao Miyazaki film or any other Studio Ghibli production. The artwork is that good. There aren’t a ton of different animations in the film. Instead the strength of the art relies on the absurdly gorgeous landscapes. The attention to detail is just astounding, and there were times when I would just want to pause the movie and appreciate the rolling hillsides or beautiful sunsets. This was one of the prettiest animes to look at that I’ve seen in a while. Similarly, the characters themselves are quite expressive and while they look like your traditional anime school children, there’s something about the way they’re drawn that lends the character styles something indescribably unique.

Also (and this is a compliment), you could also be mistaken that Hideaki Anno had taken a break during Neon Genesis Evangelion to write something a little more uplifting and positive that still bears his trademark of deep and never-ending personal angst and ennui. A significant portion of this film consists of narration by Hiroki describing his deep depression and anxiety in the years since he lost contact with Sayuri, who he loved. Similarly, Sayuri (who for fear of spoiling the film’s science fiction conceits) delivers her fair share of emotionally laden monologues against a gorgeous but desolate dreamscape that could have stepped out of a film David Lynch made for children, but he also made the conscious decision to keep making things strange as hell. Alongside Neon Genesis Evangelion, this was definitely one of the most intensely psychological anime I’ve ever watched, though over the course of the film’s 90 minute running time, I did find myself wishing for more time to spend getting to know these characters who were still frustratingly ill-defined at the film’s end.

However, the actual plot of the film (as opposed to the deep characterization of its protagonists) was vague and sort of confusing at best and intentionally unclear at worst. I’m willing to attribute part of this problem to the manner in which I saw this film which was on my Instant Queue on Netflix. I watched the English dub, and I’m willing to bet that something was lost in the localization and that the Japanese text which popped up occasionally in scene transitions (and the scenes themselves at times) which wasn’t subtitled at all caused me to lose some of the story. However, I also think that at the film’s core there was simply a science fiction story which meshed in an incredibly uncomfortable with the otherwise painfully realistic coming of age tale that was the beating heart of the film. The film doesn’t resolve a lot of the sci-fi technobabble that accompany some of its seemingly most important scenes. Similarly, the ending is exceptionally vague and confusing, and I’m still completely unsure as to what really happened there. It’s as if I loved half of the film’s plot and equally loathed the other half.

My other major problem with the film was the really bad voice acting in the English dub, with the exception of Hiroki’s voice actor. Takuya sounded like he was in his mid-40’s (as opposed to being a middle/high schooler), and Sayuri embodied virtually every high-pitched/obnoxiously feminine quality I despise in female anime voice acting (Faye Valentine is legitimately the only great female voice in all of anime). I can’t really blame the movie for that too much because anything outside of Studio Gainax or Cowboy Bebop has this problem in spades. It’s endemic of the whole anime industry. I love Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (it’s my second favorite anime ever), but I’m physically incapable of watching the English dub because the voice acting is so awful (save Ed). Hiroki’s voice actor was great though and really sold all of his personal anguish and depression. It was heart-breaking to listen to his little speeches because they felt so real and personal. It was a very intimate performance.

One last positive note before I end my extended ramblings on this film. The soundtrack is hauntingly gorgeous. There are two moments where the characters play violins that will stay with me for a long while, and the whole film is filled with beautiful musical moments like these. All in all, this is a movie made for those grown-ups like myself who hate having to defend their love of anime to uninformed individuals who don’t get just how much the genre has to offer. Even if you’re not a fan of anime but like psychological coming-of-age stories, I can also recommend this beautifully intimate tale (though the sci-fi story tacked on drags that whole production down). It’s not perfect, and while it wasn’t the masterpiece you’d seem come from Studio Ghibli, it is the definition of scenery porn as anyone with the slightest appreciation of art will probably eat up every scene and the core story of friendship is achingly tender. It has deep flaws, but the parts that work more than make up for the rest.

Final Score: B+