Still from Grave of the Fireflies, the saddest film ever made?
I have often drawn a correlation between the breakdown or transformation of emotions and values and the spread of the Internet, virtual reality and mass information. There is a paradox here. The designers of virtual realities and cyberspace constantly strive for hyper-realism. Social networking site manufacturers, for example, seek to integrate our emotions and social behaviours into online experiences, rendering them more 'real.' CGI animators are pushing every closer toward creating seamless artificial humans who are undetectable as computer constructs. This literal-mindedness about reality extends to live-action film-making. As camera tech with digital enhancements improves, everything has to be more real than real to be believable. Yet the more real we strive to make our representation of reality, the less confidence we have in reality and its representation.
This is especially the case when a film treats serious subjects. The harsher the message, the 'more real' the film has to be. In a typical Millennial attempt to quantify the unquantifiable, Canadian scientists have identified the 'saddest film ever made,' the 1979 boxing remake film, The Champ (here). In response, the famous American film critic Roger Ebert tweeted: "Canadian scientists who have never seen "Grave of the Fireflies" identify saddest movie of all time."
In Ebert's view, sometimes hyper-realism makes serious subjects less believable. Hyper-realism leads to Millennial irony, where everyone and everything is taken so seriously that the audience finds it laughable. This straight-faced self-importance is the basis of successful American comedies driven by Gen X actors Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell and Ben Stiller and their contemporaries. Their comic take-off on intense Boomer Vietnam films, Tropic Thunder (2008), was a good example. It played on all the tropes of hyper-realism, including showing the making of the movie, while making the movie, while making the movie. You can see the trailer here.
The 1988 Japanese animé film, Grave of the Fireflies (火垂るの墓, Hotaru no Haka), in Ebert's view, is one of the most powerful anti-war films ever made; he says: "it is the most profoundly human animated film I've ever seen." The heart-breaking sadness that hits home in this film depends in part on its naive animated style - in other words, on its unreal presentation. Sometimes, he feels, we need to know that an artistic treatment is just that, so that we stop looking at the artistry and start listening to the message the art is trying to convey. That's an interesting message for cyberspace enthusiasts who are pondering the value of virtual realities online that we increasingly inhabit. Are our experiences online becoming more real because we know that they aren't real?
Below the jump, see Ebert talking poignantly about the tension between unreality and reality in this film; plus see a clip from The Fog of War (2003), in which the late Defense Secretary Robert McNamara describes the American firebombing campaign in Japan, and finally the animé representation of that same event in Grave of the Fireflies. The juxtaposition shows a sharp contrast between rationalized and less rationalized views of this part of World War II. Also, there is a blurring of lines, as the 1988 serious animated social comment confronts the 2003 dramatic documentary on the same subject.
My own impression: the film shows the degeneration of middle class life in Japan in the firebombed city of Kobe in March 1945. It depicts, in a way that hits home, how war can make civilians lose everything until they die of starvation. The animation makes it clear that sometimes unreality is the most way hard-hitting way to capture these terrifying and tragic experiences.
McNamara on the firebombing of Japan. The Fog of War (2003) © Sony Pictures Classics. Video Source: Youtube.
Grave of the Fireflies (1988) © Studio Ghibli/Toho. Video Source: Youtube.
Ebert discussing the value of animé in conveying the horror of the firebombing aftermath. Video Source: Youtube.
Ebert further discusses the value of animation and comics to convey deep emotions in relation to Grave of the Fireflies here.
All copyrights remain with their owners. Copyrighted material reproduced here is solely posted for the purpose of non-commercial educational discussion and review.