The beauty and pathos of anime

The re-release of two classic Japanese cartoons reminds us of a time when kids’ intellect was taken seriously.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

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Twenty-five years ago, two Japanese animators were looking for funding for their respectively risky new projects. Off the back of some recent successes, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata decided to defy the naysayers and strike out on their own. With Miyazaki’s long-serving producer, they formed a studio that was to cement themselves in the pantheon of animated cinema – a studio called Ghibli.

After the release of Miyazaki’s Laputa: Castle In The Sky laid the ground work for their fledgling new brand, they set about releasing what were to become two of its most lasting and defining works. However, still unable to convince ever-wary distributors, they hedged their bets and stuck the two films – Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro and Takahata’s Grave Of The Fireflies – on a double bill.

One a rough-edged war drama, the other a surreal fairytale, they seemed awkward bedfellows, and the combo baffled and beguiled Japanese audiences in equal measure. Over time, they’ve become inimitable classics, and Ghibli has gone on to smash Japanese box office records with each new release. While it took years for them to reach Western audiences, Totoro and Grave effectively wrote the terms by which Ghibli would go on to become a truly international sensation – cemented in 2001 by Miyazaki’s Oscar-winning opus Spirited Away. Now, they’ve been rereleased in resplendent new prints to mark their quarter-century, and, at certain faithful cinemas in the UK, you have a chance to catch the original double feature that originally passed us Westerners by.

Disney, just as its own powers were beginning to wane, snatched up the distribution rights for Ghibli’s back catalogue in 1996. As much as the two studios had in common – not least in their quest to make truly timeless children’s entertainment – Ghibli was exotic, daring and went places Uncle Walt daren’t. Indeed, even Disney’s best-loved fairytales were cleansed of the pathos and macabre that marked their European source material. Unless they’re saving it for their umpteenth ‘definitive’ DVD edition, the deleted Cinderella scene in which one of the ugly sisters hacks off her own toes in an effort to squeeze into the glass slipper – as the Brothers Grimm had it – seems unlikely to surface. By contrast, My Neighbour Totoro and Grave Of The Fireflies are at once uplifting and sinister and tragic.

Grave’s 12A rating belies a truly heartrending story about teenager Seita and his four-year-old sister, Setsuko, trying to survive in rural Japan during the final months of the Second World War – dodging air raids and scavenging for food after their mother meets an unfortunate, and shockingly graphic, end. Takahata’s unflinching eye guides us through a Japan haunted by death, destruction and hopelessness, all cast in the hellish glow of explosions in the twilight.

Miyazaki’s film is far cuddlier fare, telling the story of two sisters, Mei and Satsuki, who befriend a ten-foot tall, bunny-eared ‘wood spirit’ called Totoro. After some shaky early screenings in 1988, it was wisely moved to the backend of the double feature, its breezy, spiritual air proving the perfect salve for scars that Grave inflicted on the unsuspecting audience. But even in Totoro’s twinkling glades, death is a palpable presence.

Something that unites these disparate works is the sense of rediscovering one’s innocence in the wake of war. Totoro, set in the 1950s, is a back-to-nature retreat into childlike wonderment wrapped up in a simple domestic drama. The sisters’ father moves them to a rugged house in the countryside to be near their ailing mother, who lies languishing in a hospital, battling with an unknown illness. Here, their anxieties and concerns are played out in the supernatural world they discover, complete with an array of otherworldly beings, including Miyazaki’s most ingenious creation to date – Catbus, a giant, 12-legged feline that is also, well, a bus. Meanwhile, Grave is a far grittier study of the desperate need to hold on to one’s childhood in the very midst of bedlam. Tender and beautifully realised scenes in which Seita and Setsuko trap fireflies to illuminate their lonely bomb shelter prove scant moments of tenderness in the film’s otherwise heady gloom.

Above all else, the films share an unflinching commitment to the power and potency of the visual image. This is animation at its most painterly and expressive. The now iconic scene in which Totoro, Mei and Satsuki stand at the bus stop in the rain, under the light of a lamppost, is a moment far more memorable than the sweeping, CGI-embellished vistas of The Lion King. When it first appeared, the jerky, disjointed movement of the Japanese anime style was dismissed as primitive, but what time – and money – they saved on super-fluid motion they poured into the lustrously painted backdrops and carefully constructed mise-en-scene. Indeed, they are uniquely stunning to watch, even as the camera’s eye sits firmly still – and both Miyazaki and Takahata trust their young viewers have big enough attention spans to do the same.

These days, for-all-ages filmmaking has been reduced to peppering a jaunty story for the kids with some Godfather references for the grown-ups – by contrast, My Neighbour Totoro, Grave Of The Fireflies and the studio they helped establish treated old and young as one and the same. Something, I reckon, worth celebrating with an enthralling three hours at the pictures.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

See the trailer for My Neighbour Totoro here:

And see the trailer for Grave of the Fireflies here:

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