There are two films about the horrors of war that have left the greatest impact on me: Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” and Isao Takahata’s “Grave of the Fireflies.”
In the case of “Ryan,” what makes the movie a masterpiece is how it realistically shows the brutality and casualties of war in a way that few films have ever been able to. It is bloody, gory and completely traumatizing. Live action as a medium of storytelling fits the story Spielberg wanted to tell perfectly.
However, if I were to choose which film I would rather re-watch, “Grave of the Fireflies” would win out every time. The 1988 animated film’s story of two children surviving in Japan during World War II has had the ability to make every single person that I have shown it to devolve into a blubbering mess of tears by its tragic conclusion.
Animation’s ability to convey difficult subject matter and themes in a way that can be made more appealing to a mainstream audience is often overlooked by those who see the medium as a means to deliver family entertainment and cheap laughs. Difficult subjects that may be explored are more accessible to those who wouldn’t normally buy a ticket to something like “Saving Private Ryan.”
By telling the story of “Grave of the Fireflies” in an animated format, preconceptions some older or more conservative audience members may have about Japanese culture throughout the era in which the film takes place can be put to ease.
My grandmother, who I first watched the film with, had a heart-to-heart conversation with me on how “Grave” affected her. She told me that, as a young girl growing up, she had never seen the Japanese as being human the same way that an American was human, which meant that hearing about the impact of the A-bomb on Japanese shores left little impact on her as a child. The movie brought her face-to-face with the harsh realities of World War II from a Japanese perspective for the first time, which she confessed would have been difficult for her to get through were it live action.
This is, of course, not to say that every film about tragedy needs to be conveyed through animation, but rather that animation can breathe life into concepts that many would just rather not think about. But in the case of “Grave of the Fireflies,” having the movie lovingly crafted by animators and designers lets the humanitarian message breathe through every single frame in a way that would be far more difficult with actors and sets.
This is where animation is able to bridge the gap and affect the mainstream in unprecedented ways.
When Disney released “Zootopia” last year, very few people came into the movie opening weekend with their little ones expecting a detailed breakdown of institutionalized racism. If the story featured real people and not cartoon animals, it would have been far less likely that kids would have lined up to see it opening weekend.
By creating a figurative animated world where a bunny struggles to be a cop amid a force of larger predators, and a fox is judged purely on the nature of his birth, “Zootopia” successfully got both children and adults thinking about how the injustices shown in the cartoon reflects the world they currently live in. It was a far cry from the typically safe princess adventure stories that the studio had been profiting from leading up to “Zootopia’s” release.
In the words of Marjane Satrapi, one of the directors for the autobiographical French animated film “Persepolis”: “…People go to watch (Persepolis) and they say, ‘After 10 minutes I forgot it was an animation,’ and that was exactly what I wanted because for me animation is just a technique.”
Animation is not a genre, but rather another means of storytelling. The way a vision of an artist, a new way to look at the world, can be fully realized without having to compromise with the rules of our everyday reality is what makes it such a powerful vehicle to share harsh depressing truths.
Because sometimes, a crude caricature can say more than a photograph.