Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Unreality and Millennial Emotions: The Saddest Film Ever Made

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.


  1. There must have been something in the air besides fallout particulates back in the late 1980's. When I tried to think of the saddest movie I'd ever seen I considered "When The Wind Blows" (1986). Then I realized that, like "Grave Of The Fireflies", it was about innocents dying from radiation poisoning as a side effect of fighting between others.

    Other international contenders? "My Name Is Ivan", "The Virgin Spring" and, oddly, "In The Realm Of The Senses". That last one is usually remembered for explicit depictions of a couple destroyed by their own sexual addiction, but it should be noted that their sexual behavior becomes joylessly mechanical and unerotic as they spiral out of control. The movie as a whole is like watching someone take two hours to drown.

    On a different point, I seem to recall a Japanese robot designer who proposed that there is a point of approximation, around 97% or so, at which synthetic life seems viable to humans. That is, if the simulation were any more perfect if would seem creepy to human test subjects, but if it were just slightly imperfect they would be more willing to accept it as 'alive'. I'm sorry that I can't remember the designer's name because I think the effect was named for him.

  2. Great comment pblfsda, thank you. Oh yes, I remember "When the Wind Blows" from the bygone era of anti-nuclear-bomb protests. It's funny, isn't it, now that nuclear weapons are starting to spread to other countries, the protests and sheer panic have died down? You don't see citizens in India or Pakistan marching in the streets and gripped with terror by nuclear weapons. Curious.

    To be honest, I am not sure that Graveyard of the Fireflies (while very powerful) is the saddest film ever made, despite Ebert's eloquent review. These things are so relative, and what works for one person doesn't reach another to the same degree.

    As for the other films you mention, I haven't seen them, thank you for the suggestions and will add them to my list. Some foreign films are now available online without copyright infringement; there was a foreign films site attached to facebook, although I'm not sure if it's still active.

  3. "My Name Is Ivan" was a Russian made film recognized by an Academy Award in the early (mid?) 1960's, which some people associated with entering a different phase of the Cold War. It was marketed in the U.S. and other English language territories under a number of titles, such as "The Dream of Ivan", "'I', My Name Is Ivan" and "Ivan's Childhood". I don't know if that was to circumvent perceived controversy, or due to inconsistent translation or just show-biz hucksters trying to trick audiences into seeing the same movie twice.

    "Virgin Spring" is classic Ingmar Bergman and should be much easier to find. Opt for subtitles.

  4. The first thing I think of when I think of Ingmar Bergman is the statue's hand moving in the nursery (was it the nursery?) in Fanny and Alexander, then the other image is of course Death in the Seventh Seal.

    I liked the Monty Python take off of the Seventh Seal where Death shows up at a dinner party in the Meaning of Life. Thank you vm for these suggestions, I'll track them down.