depressing anime

by fledgling otaku on June 9, 2006

Eaisly the most depressing annime I ever watched was Grave of the Fireflies. It was recommended by someone whose taste I knew ran ddarker than mine, but I figured, hey it would be artsy, whynot? It certainly gets high marks from reviewers, but in my opinion from reading them there’s a Seinfeld/English Patient dynamic at work there. I mean, did they watch the same movie I did? I am particularly bitter given that that single title pretty much sabotaged the enjoyment of the entire genre of anime for my wife, who points to it (and the perpetual presence of anime orphans in general) as proof that anime is for emotional masochists.

Now – while certainly not in Fireflies’ league – several otaku comment that Binchou-tan is a fairly morose series. Given that it is kid-oriented, it certainly wasn’t going to end on a down-note, as Don observed with relief. Still, I just don’t consider loneliness and angst to have entertainment value. Whether or not the series is worth it for us would be how well it meets my Guidelines for Child-Friendly Anime or not. It’s kind of a moot point given that there is no dubbed Region 1 for Binchou-tan anyway, only fansubs.

One might argue that Haibane Renmei was a depressing series – after all, once you gget past disc 6 it seems like Rakka has a tearful breakdown every five minutes. And the introspective look of Reki is pretty well captured by my blog header – just wait until I post the lyrics to some of the songs from the Hanenone CD. But HR was joyous for all its angst. There’s an elation you feel at the end that makes it all fit together just right.

Still, there must be a market for all that angst. I bet Marvin would love it. What do you think, Marvin-tan?

UPDATE: Some folks at the Old Home Forum take exception to our attitude towards Fireflies, Miyazaki, and even Azumanga Daioh. I have often been accused of “not getting it” when I failed to express the proper reverence for certain pieces of art by those with more knowledge than I about what constitutes “good” art. I suspect that this is much the same. Ultimately whether art makes a connection to someone or not is an intensely personal affair, and I don’t think that refusal to treat art critically is the less sophisticated approach.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

marvin June 9, 2006 at 8:22 am

YOU’re asking ME what I think? Does a tea leaf know the history of the East India Company? It hurts my brain just thinking down to your level.

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Shamus June 9, 2006 at 9:57 am

Grave of the Fireflies is one of very few anime I’ve ever quit watching before I finished it. Depressing is bad. Cruel and depressing is worse. Cruel, depressing and incomprehensible is just misery to watch. I don’t know how it ended (I’m sure it wasn’t with a smile) but I’m ok with that.

Which makes me think:

Everyone (including myself) praises Miyazaki as a visionary and a master of anime, but a majority of his films seem to be deeply flawed for most viewers. Totoro and Spirited Away aside, his movies usually get equal measures of praise and scorn.

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fledgling otaku June 9, 2006 at 1:30 pm

agreed – I think it’s probably due to his status as an artisan rather than a storyteller. He creates worlds, but not neccessarily plots. So, he takes artistic risks, and sometimes they pay off and sometimes they don’t when translated to actual story.

I have a theory that all Miyazaki films occur in the same universe, just different continents. It’s definitely true insamuch as that universe is essentially his own personal world view, in which militaries are bad, old people are wise, little girls are the heroes, etc.

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Don June 9, 2006 at 4:40 pm

As an occasional poster at the OHBB, I’d like to point out that Kerpan’s opinions are entirely his own and certainly do not represent mine.

(There’s something screwy going on here with this page. The comment window spontaneously closed several time before I could type my comment, and links also disappear when I try to click on them.)

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Don June 9, 2006 at 4:59 pm

The problem I mentioned in the previous comment may be specific to the Safari browser on Friday afternoons. I’m in Firefox now, and everything seems to be working fine.

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HC June 9, 2006 at 5:39 pm

Sorry about the effects of GotF – it is one of the saddest anime I have seen. It is for emotional masochists – if that means for those who who enjoy unrelieved tragedy. It is not the norm for anime. You could as easily have watched Fancy Lala, and concluded that anime lacks nearly all of the negative facets of human life – an unfair verdict, to anime as whole and to Fancy Lala… but no more unfair than concluding that GotF is no more than the pain it depicts.

GotF does depict a depressing, cruel, and incomprehensible world. In part, this serves to depict total war through a child’s eyes; in part, this serves to depict WWII Japan through a child’s eyes. It does not end happily because it cannot do so without undermining its messages, but it does not depict or glorify pain – emotional or otherwise – for pain’s sake.

I hold that loneliness and angst have entertainment value when used well, as does any other part of the human experience. There are plenty of shows, animated or not, which substitute brooding for character development, but I think you might agree that both Rakka and Reki develop richly through their angst.

My own tastes run to shows which are redemptive – which do lead surprisingly to some honest joy at the end, and thereby justify and redeem the suffering which has gone before. This does, however, require that there be some suffering beforehand.

If you also often judge shows by whether there is ‘an elation at the end that makes it all fit together just right,’ you may wish to re-examine Azumanga Daioh. Kimura is a crude joke, but no more than that, and the series as whole transcends its sketch-comedy origins in a remarkable way.

Incidentally – Matrix: Revolutions and Star Wars:I? Really? The former is not an utterly indefensible position, and I respect, for instance, Brian Takle’s efforts in that regard, though I think he imposes order rather than discovering it, and is ultimately unpersuasive. The latter, however… it may well have not been the worst of the new trilogy, though I shy away from a detailed examination of that topic as from the Gorgon’s head, but the arguments for its excellence are not evident to me.

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fledgling otaku June 10, 2006 at 7:44 am

HC – I fully agree. I am not anti-angst, but I do expect that the angst serve a purpose for growth of some kind. In Haibane Renmei, Rakka breaks down in tears every five minutes, but ultimately there was a broader message than just “life is hard”. The only real message of GoF was “war sucks”.

I’ll save a discussion for Star Wars later – this is the anime category after all – though my comment at OHBB was somewhat tounge in cheek :) I just don’t like the “if you didn’t like it, you didn’t understand it” attitude that so many aficionados of art trot out. I’m not particullay impressed by any of Mondrian’s work, either.

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HC June 10, 2006 at 3:06 pm

Setting Mondrian aside, the other big message from GotF was not just ‘war sucks’ but that wartime Japan – and many wartime Japanese – sucked. Wandering into someone else’s self-flagellation risks missing some of the meaning, but the meaning was there. The other reason for rating GotF high is that it provokes intense reactions, for good or ill.

Anyway – de gustibus non disputandum est, and I hardly want to persuade you to love GotF when I do not myself. I watch it very rarely, but do respect it more than several shows which I like better. If you were looking for the antidote to GotF, you could do worse than CCS, Kaleido Star, or Fancy Lala. They are all happy, and to their various degrees unremittingly so.

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Tagore June 15, 2006 at 6:39 pm

Fireflies is not a Miyazaki (though I think he did produce it). Isao Takahata, the co-founder of Ghibli, directed. Fireflies is not very much like Miyazaki’s movies, in tone or technique, except that the production values are high. I know you didn’t say it was, but a lot of your commenters think it is.

It’s true that one can’t argue with the statement “I didn’t like it”. After all, that is a question of fact, and you are the only person in a position to be sure of the truth in that matter (others ought to be free to form their own opinions of your taste on that basis, but if the assesment is negative it is certainly more polite to keep those opinions to themselves). But when you use that as a springboard to make more general criticisms, those criticisms don’t automatically inherit the immunity of the original statement, IMHO ;). There is a big difference between “I didn’t like it” and “It was not good”, and an even bigger when one makes firm statements about the theme.

In Japan animation and comics draw on a much larger range of material than they do in the US (and, of course, if that were not the case it is unlikely that haibane could have been made- it almost certainly drew some inspiration from a Murakami novel). To watch Fireflies and decide that anime is for “emotional masochists” is a bit like reading the first chapter of Oliver Twist and deciding the same thing about novels. You’re free to do so, but being bitter at Dickens seems unfair, and generalizing from that to all novels seems more so.

Fireflies is actually based on a memoir. The details have surely been fictionalized (among other things the author of the memoir clearly lived to write it), but his little sister did die, in his care, during WWII, of hunger.

One can’t accuse you of “not getting it” for saying “I didn’t like it”. But if you (and I know that this is from commenters, not Fledgling) think that the theme is simply “war sucks”, then yeah, you didn’t get it. One can’t be blamed entirely for this- a lot of the thematic material is not clearly marked, as that signalling is not required for a Japanese audience. I think this makes the film stronger, as it is more subtly moralistic than it would otherwise have been, but it certainly makes it difficult material for an American audience.

The movie has couple of intertwined themes- one is, in fact, that “war sucks”, but for many Japanese this is still a rather concrete subject, so this is not nearly as quotidian as the same statement in the US. The second important theme is a hard one for an American audience to recognize. The death of Setsuko is not just part and parcel of the war- it is directly Seita’s fault, and it is caused by excessive egoism and pride. He allows his petty sense of self to override the survival of his family, and then lets the consequences of that decision fall on his last remaining family member by feeding himself before her. His death at the end, which is clearly self-inflicted, is a form of atonement.

Once you recognize these two themes it is not hard to see that a parallel is being drawn between Seita and the Japanese leadership that initiated the war. The Japanese have “always” (at least for a long time) viewed the Japanese nation as an amplified version of the Japanese family. The Japanese have also generally considered the welfare of one’s family/business/nation to be more important than one’s individual welfare. Just as Seita, driven by pride, put his own interests ahead of those of his family, so did the Japanese leadership of the 30s put their pride ahead of the well-being of their national family.

There are actually many more allusions to classical and Meiji literature and thought in the film, but I hesitate to make this comment any longer.

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Quorlox June 17, 2006 at 7:34 pm

I had not watched Grave of the Fireflies before this thread began, but I just finished it. The main theme I noticed was Seita’s pride, as Tagore mentioned. There’s nothing that guarantees his sister would have survived if he hadn’t left his aunt, but he left because he didn’t wish to apologize or change his behavior. Even after the farmer encouraged him to go back, he didn’t. The few resources he had he often used to purchase items he didn’t need, such as a stove and watermelon, which aggravated the situation further.

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