Art & Culture - Page 2

Grave of the Fireflies

On 9th December at age 85 died Akiyuki Nosaka (野坂 昭如), an author of story Grave of the Fireflies (火垂るの墓), which earned him a prestigious literary award Naoki. Born in 1930 in the former imperial capital of Kamakura, not far from Tokyo, Akiyuki Nosaka lived through the death of his mother and then of his adoptive parents, who perished during the 1945 American air raids. He and his younger sister were firebombed out of their homes, and she then died by starving to death. Writing Grave of the Fireflies, Nosaka said, was his way of making peace with his past and overcome guilt over some less worthy aspects of his wartime behaviour.

Akiyuki Nosaka, © MyDramaList
Akiyuki Nosaka, © MyDramaList

Probably unknown to many a European, this captivating tale has much to say, precisely during such merry time as Christmas holidays. The story of two orphans struggling through the penury of wartime Japan is based on Nosaka’s own childhood experience. Yet, it transcends its historical moment and shows that virtues and solidarity hold the greatest significance in harsh times. That is when they are put under test and that is when they have to play themselves out not just in words but also in deeds. Why not to remind ourselves of the importance of noble acts precisely during Christmas?

Most accessible introduction is in the book’s adaptation into a highly appraised anime of the same name from Isao Takahata of Studio Ghibli. Animation may at first seem like an odd choice for a ‘serious storyline’, but that is explained by the author himself. Nosaka thought that Grave of the Fireflies places such high expectations on two young protagonists, that an acted film would not fully capture the story (Shoten 1994, p. 8). The quality of the animation itself is spectacular, demonstrating smoothness and detail perfected in later Ghibli films as Secret World of Arrietty. In the first-ever such experiment in anime, most of the film’s illustrations are drawn with brown outlines and not in the customary black. While more difficult technically (brown does not provide such a good contrast as black), it fulfilled its purpose in giving Grave of the Fireflies very soft visual feel. On the one hand, that contrasts with the wartime havoc everywhere on the scene, on the other, it highlights the vulnerability of each of the characters. Fireflies are the story’s symbol for a reason: just as they brightly sparkle only for a while before vanishing, a similar fate might await the main child protagonists.

The fourteen-year old Seita and his four-year old sister Setsuko live in Kobe with their mother, while their father, a navy admiral, fights for Japan on the high seas. Yet, the whole city is soon burned to ashes as B-29 “Superfortress” bombers make a raid on their town. Separated from their mother, Seita discovers her afterwards in a school that serves as a makeshift infirmary, her whole body covered by bandages and with horrid, fatal burns. She dies soon after, but Seita decides not to tell his sister, not to cause her any pain. With so many dead, for the assistants in the infirmary, the mother is just ‘another rotting corpse’, which they make clear when they put her on one pile with other bodies destined for mass burial.

Isao Takahata, © Zimbio
Isao Takahata, © Zimbio

The siblings make their way to a distant aunt. But food is scarce, so Seita reluctantly parts with his mother’s last kimonos, to exchange them for rice. That only causes distress in the four-year old Setsuko, who holds to the clothes as they are the last tangible reminder of her mother’s warm and reassuring presence. Soon the aunt who was initially welcoming (particularly after they shared rice with her family), starts reminding them they are a burden on the household budget. They find themselves without rice and called lazy bums for not working to aid the war effort. A proud son to a navy admiral, Seita decides that a life will be better on their own and the siblings part to a cave not far from their aunt’s village. They are able to grow some plants and exchange some of their possessions for food, but that does not last long as the strain on local farmers pushes them to keep the provisions for themselves. Seita resorts to stealing, but even then Setsuko becomes increasingly more malnourished.

Without revealing the full story, the scenes above reveal a deep connection between the two siblings. That attachment is strengthened, not weakened in the wartime, and they both are forced to grow up very soon, which mirrors Akiyuki Nosaka’s own experience. The only person Seita can exchange words with is his sister, while Setsuko eventually becomes affected by the change in the environment as well as in her brother and assumes more motherly role at times. The story shows that Seita’s and Setsuko’s life is also full of bright moments – whether when playing on piano or when we see how Setsuko joyfully awaits her brothers return from ‘a food hunt’.

On the other hand, the ‘outside world’ becomes increasingly more hostile as people close up but to themselves. The pressing need for survival, thinning food rations and looming death pushes everyone to egoism and cynic neglect to the suffering of others, even to children. We see that many times in the film, whether in the opening scene when a dead child lying at the train station is ‘just another corpse,’ or an examination where the doctor shows complete ignorance as to the ability to survive of his young patient.

Nevertheless, the above does not make Grave of the Fireflies an anti-war film. In a way, the Japan’s war – which none of the characters in the film ever questions – possesses the capacity to bring both the best and the worst in people. Commenting the story, Nosaka spoke about his hate for the films ‘where the main character is placed into cruel situations for no other reason than to provide a cathartic focus for the audience’s sympathy’ (Shoten 1994, p. 10). For Seita and Setsuko, it is a very harsh journey, yet one which makes them extremely close. Most of other characters demonstrate almost complete lack of solidarity, although they might behave differently when it comes to their closest ones.

While the film happens in a wartime setting, its purpose is not to criticise war as such (which is distant, seen only in the form of falling bombs), but to show how people behave within it, together with the capacity for better and worse. War itself might be an inevitable human condition, but our individual behaviour within in – or during any strenuous times in general – depends on ourselves. Nosaka and Takahata are idealists in the sense of having high expectations for human comportment, even when they put their child characters in front of total misery, a force majeure. Symbolism of fireflies is apt. Life might not last long, the settings might be harsh, but it is the way each person takes up own behaviour, that makes up for its brightness. Akiyuki Nosaka’s Grave of the Fireflies and its anime adaptation by Isao Takahata give us exactly that reminder.

-Stanislav Máselník

 

Bibliographie

Shoten, Tokuma (1994) Two Grave Voices in Animation. In : Animerica, vol. 2, n° 11, p. 6–11. Online : http://ghiblicon.blogspot.cz/2011/04/animerica-interviews-isao-takahata-and.html.

Statement

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2015

 

On days like today it is hard to love one- and thyself, to still believe that people

are born to live and dream freely. I wonder what Rousseau would say of the chains

that we forged for ourselves in full, but willing ignorance.

We got too used to the fact that wars are not fought in our lands,

that guns do not sound in our towns and people do not die in our homes

in vain. They do.

Not just today, and not just here. We must see it clearly, and need to realize that

a hidden war is still a war even more when we close our eyes to stay

politically correct.

 

There have been countless wars, pointless wars,

even wars fiercely justified. All of them unfair wars.

Tell me though, who ever fights fair?

No man is ever prepared for war and

you see, to say there is a war does not solve anything.

For years now we have been ignoring the rest of the world,

happy to stay in our growing bubble of lies and political machinations.

So many slaps in the face we brushed off and justified.

 

For years now, we have been hearing empty phrases:

Something needs to be done. But no one wants to begin

by saying: This is the problem. Terrorism started somewhere.                            It was our fault.

On days like today living in this place makes me sick down

to the very unknown pits of my stomach.

So this is the famous celebrated humanity? Remember, what it was again

we said that makes us human? What was it, which is proper to a man?

 

The logos, the laughter, the mourning, the shame, the clothes,

the vengeance, the art, the war, the power, the fear of death, the love,

the hatred.

 

The highly developed intelligence,

which we seem to have shed along the way, stupid enough

to let our politicians pretend the problems are far away (but really so big they clouded our minds)

It is the news and even more it is our very inner self who got shell-shocked,

who thought it was safe in its clever human form.

All this makes me want to crawl down on all four and lick salt of

kindly offered stones until my tongue bleeds out,                                   as bitter might be the only feeling

we still have left as

humans. The deer laugh at as now.

 

The first one: the history. No, we never learn. That is man’s trace;

The witchcraft will not save us from

our death. The self-pity will not save us from our guilt.

Wars, they will not be challenged by words.

(The world leaders condemn the killings.

the politicians condemn the killings,

the intellectuals condemn the killings,

the media condemn the killings.)

If only condemnation could be enough.

 

We need to condemn our inability

to unify

to communicate

to act.

We need to say our fears and keep our heads up,

start to speak out loud, as citizens, as Europeans, as people.

 

Two: logos. The language that we speak

(all those words). So many languages you stand in awe of,

facing beautiful, beautiful vowels rolling off strangers’ tongues

that you will never be able to pronounce or understand.

So many words but we do not talk to each other. We do not dare to

talk of things that matter to us because that might hurt, the realisation that

The world is not perfect. That not everyone is made equal.

That buying things does not pave the way to happiness. That problems

Will not go away just because we do not name them.

That there are different religions, and different races, and different cultures.

That we all live here, now, and we want to live here then and we want to

travel and show our children what the world is like. We need to work this out,

differently, and not tomorrow.

 

Third: the capacity to feel shame.

We are very good at being ashamed of the wrong things: of our feelings

betraying us in public, of our weaknesses: the petty secret milk and sugar cravings

in the middle of the night, of nudity: hiding our scrotums instead of

being grateful that our bodies still do not give up on us.

Who is not ashamed of the things we have not done?

I say:

Shame on us             for all the hatred we sow and we now reap

                                    for choosing weak leaders for our countries.

                                   for our indifference and comfortableness.

                                   for our proud blindness

                                                                                                  of the untouchable animal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alice Maselnikova

The Dark Barn 2015 art exhibition

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We’re very happy to announce The European Strategist is now sponsoring and supporting The Dark Barn 2015 art exhibition.

This is a part of our on-going effort to promote Europe’s culture and art, both contemporary and old. The real value of art isn’t commercial – works of art show us different worlds and the truth they contain. They elevate our eyes to pierce through the ordinary and see the extraordinary. This aspect will be never accessible to those who see in art nothing but valuable merchandise to be bought and sold and boasted about in their social circles. Our view of art is therefore essentially “unmodern” and going against the calculating, commodity fetishist spirit of capitalism.

Now to the exhibition itself. Set in the rural context of Kladná Žilín in the Zlín region, Eastern Moravia, the exhibition is starting in July 2015. Presenting the works of over 15 international artists, the show is based around the concept of “anti-exposition”, and has been accepting submissions from both established artists, recent graduates and art enthusiasts.

Here’s an excerpt from the exhibition’s description:

“We do not like that too many artists today are exhibited solely based on their fame/name and in order to bring profit to the exhibiting gallery. Artworks are displayed only for the sake of being seen and without the quality of the work being questioned. It is all a Big Humbug and Show Off and a Bore and a Problem.

Dark Barn targets the opposite concept. The works will be displayed without the intention to be seen by anyone. It is a non-profit exhibition. No one will probably see it and it will not be widely advertised online.  (Yes, we get the point, it might as well not exist but let us not get too existential here.)”

The European Strategist also provided help with restoration of the exhibition premises.

You can find more information on the project’s web page.

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