The Swanpride Award: 1987- 1988

 

Taken into Consideration:

The Brave little Toaster (1987), Jerry Rees, Traditional

Akira (1988), Katsuhiro Otomo, Traditional

Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

My Neighbour Totoro (1988), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

Gandahar (1988), René Laloux, Traditional

No, I haven’t forgotten Oliver and Company. I wish I could, though.

I considered Gandahar for a long time. It is the third and last René Laloux movie, and I felt bad for kicking him off the list yet again. It is not that I think that his movies are bad. Those movies are cult classics for a reason and Gandahar might be my favourite of them. They are just not quite good enough to play in the top league. There are always two aspects which bother me about them: For one the quality of the animation. The actual designs are fascinating, but the animation in itself always looks a little bit cheap. And two the scripts. There is way too much exposition in all of them, too much “tell instead of show”. What the movies try to tell the audience is always interesting, but they have the tendency to spell out everything without really saying anything challenging from todays perspective. Either way, if you are interested in animation, you should give those movies a watch for the designs alone.

I also won’t discuss The Brave Little Toaster. I know that this is a beloved movie. I like it, too. It is surprisingly good for an independent production. But it is also a very simple story with some serious tonal issues. It’s a good watch and most likely the best animated movie of 1987, but there were a number of really important Japanese movies in the following year.

Nominees-1987-and-1988

Nominated:

Akira (1988), Katsuhiro Otomo, Traditional

Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

My Neighbour Totoro (1988), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

Honestly, what is the deal with the animated movies of the 1980s? Why are there so many which are dark and/or depressing? It is not like I mind animated movies addressing serious topics, quite the opposite in fact, but it is really notable how many movies from this period are about nuclear bombs or war in general. Where is this sudden need to address those topics coming from? Was the situation in the cold war that threatening? Or was it Chernobyl? I have no idea. But leave it to the Japanese to address the subject in a meaningful manner.

  • The Story: I admit, I am not sure if I truly understand what the story of Akira is about. And after some research, I have started to doubt that anyone else does either. I did something I usually don’t do and spend some time looking through reviews of this movie. And I noticed that there is a lot of talk about the style of Akira, its role in making Anime better known in the west and the philosophical themes and political commentary in it. But for some reason nobody ever mentions what those themes exactly are and what kind of commentary it is. I don’t dispute that the movie is addressing something, but I have no idea what this something actually is. If someone can explain it to me, I would be really thankful.

    With Grave of the Fireflies, the big question always seem to be if it is a war movie or not. I think that it wasn’t intended to be one. The main theme of the movie definitely is the relationship between society and the individual. Thus said though, due to the war being more a backdrop, the movie makes a way better point concerning its impact than actual war movies. In fact, I think it does a way better job as a war movie, than it does addressing the actual intended theme. I think the main point is that humans can’t survive if they isolate themselves off society. My problem is that I wouldn’t even want to be part of the society which is portrayed in the movie. Why? Well, that’s something I’ll discuss in the character section.

    Compared to the other two movies, My Neighbour Totoro is like a giant bag of cotton candy. It reminds me a lot of Astrid Lindgreen’s “The Six Bullerby Children” in the way it describes the adventures of childhood. Though it does add a healthy dose of mythology into the mix. All in all it is a wonderful plate cleanser after a movie like Grave of the Firefly. It speaks to children because it shows their world, and it speaks to adults by reminding them that the fears and worries of children are just as serious as what adults feel.

  • The Characters:  There is another thing I noticed reading up about Akira: There are often very detailed descriptions of the convoluted story. But in none of them is ever written anything about the motivations of the characters. Because they have none. They have goals, which are randomly assigned to them based on what the story needs. But I never really understood why anyone does anything in this movie. Only at the very end the audience gets at least some background on the relationship between Kaneda and Tetsuo, but at this point, it doesn’t really matter anymore.

    Well, I still owe you an explanation what exactly my issue with Grave of the Fireflies is. Here it goes: I hate the characters. All of them. I hate the mother, who carelessly doesn’t stay with her children but goes ahead to the bomb shelter. I hate Seita for being too proud to accept that he can’t take care of his sister. I hate the aunt for not taking proper care for them, especially not on an emotional level. I hate the cousin and the tenant for ignoring what is going in the household. I hate every single person who sells Seita stuff instead of talking to him and explain the realities of life to him before it is too late (honestly, the great speech about being a part of society is really undermined when it comes from someone who took Seita’s money in the past). I hate the doctor who does nothing to rescue a starving child. I even hate Setsuko for being so unrealistically cute and agreeable. The movie wants to tell the audience that what happens is Seita’s fault, and yes, it is to a large part. But it is also the fault of a society which didn’t reach out to him in time even though it could have, which allowed him to take Setsuko from relative safety and is talking about the “war efforts” as if the war has nothing to do with the decisions their own government made. The society which constantly tells Seita that “he is lucky” when it actually should apologize that they stood by and allowed this war to happen. That is not the kind of society I would want to be part of.

    At least My Neighbour Totoro has well-written characters. Just normal people, easily to relate to, with understandable motivations and some decency in their heart.  And some very cute monsters.

 

  • The Soundtrack: The truly remarkable thing about Akira is not really the score, even though its often dissonant tunes are very unusual. No, what really impressed me is the way the movie uses silence. It has become quite common in anime by now to go silent in the middle of an action sequence in order to get the attention of the audience, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Akira was the movie which started the trend.

    The main theme of Grave of the Fireflies reminds me of a musical box. Every time it is used, it creates a bittersweet mood, partly because of the tune, but partly because the audience knows that no matter how happy the characters are for a short moment, this story won’t end well.

    Happy. That is the first word which comes in my mind when I listen to the soundtrack of My Neighbour Totoro. The tune reminds me of children songs I learned in kindergarten, occasionally  interlaced with some slightly melancholic bits.

 

  • The Animation: The first thing which is usually mentioned about Akira is its graphic depiction of violence. To be honest, I think that this is the least endearing feature of the movie, because the violence often feels pointless and overly gory. It is everything else which makes its animation great. The designs (especially everything involving Kaneda’s motor bike), the colours, the incredible layers of details. Sometimes you watch a scene and suddenly you notice really impressive artwork tucked somewhere in the background. I have one issue with the character designs, though. I think that Kaneda and Kei look too similar. The first time I watched the movie I was incredible confused in the very beginning, because I first didn’t realize that they were two different characters.

    If there is one thing I like about Grave of the Firefly than the way it manages to be realistic without being too gory. There are a lot of bandages, but rarely any visible wounds. Which in a way makes it worse, because you constantly imagine how horrible they are. The whole movie works this way, a lot is just suggested instead of shown, but that makes the impact of it even stronger.

    What really stands out to me in My Neighbour Totoro are the character designs, especially of Totoro. None of the monsters are speaking, and yet it is so easy to understand them.

Of the three movies, My Neighbour Totoro is the only one which works for me the way it was intended to. It is a very quaint movie. The trouble is: while I like watching those movies, they usually don’t end up on my best lists. I always want a little bit more than a pleasing story, some layers which are worth discussing.
I am not sure if Akira does have those layers or just pretends to have them, but it certainly is an artistic statement which I can’t dismiss easily.
And yet I decided to give the win to Grave of the Firefly. Intended or not, this is one of the best anti-war movies out there. None of the others has ever made me that angry and so determined to ensure, that the 70 year long period of peace Germany has enjoyed will never end. And if it does, I want to be able to say that I didn’t raise my flag claiming that throwing bombs was a solution to anything.

Tomorrow I’ll take a break from posting, instead you can head over to Honoring the Heroine for my article about Ariel. If The Little Mermaid makes it into the final cut, well, we’ll see Sunday. Until then, don’t forget to vote. Otherwise you favourite movie might not end up in the second round of the reader’s choice selection.

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5 responses to “The Swanpride Award: 1987- 1988

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