Roger Ebert died this past week. He was not only a star-like entertainment figure, but he popularized the movie critic and turned it into a legitimate thing to be. May he rest in peace and my condolences to his friends, colleagues and family. That said, I never really held his opinions in much of any esteem. Rather, I enjoy his prolific and professional approach to that core task he does so well–reviewing movies. It’s in his rather-concise form in which I learn about movies I typically never get to see (and probably don’t want to watch). It’s his consistency, approach and criticalness that is truly worthy.
The one thing I always found interesting is how Ebert put Graves of the Fireflies on a pedestal. It’s at least his favorite piece from Ghibli. It hung with me because I watched Graves for the first time only a year ago, so for the longest time I wondered how well it stands against the expectation and weight from the raving reviews and trigger warnings people give. After seeing it, everything makes sense. It certainly belongs to his 100 great movies.
I also think it’s a great demonstration of what I call “anime no chikara.” And by that I simply mean the power of the animation medium, style, format, whatever.
In his review of Graves of the Fireflies Ebert spelled out in a way why he likes it so much. However I think he spends most of the review explaining what makes Graves a great film–the “chikara” part. The part how anime makes a movie about the torturous fate of two war orphans during Japan’s WW2 period? He points it out in a couple sentences here and there–something about imagination and the ability to convey realistic human emotion without the constraints of realism.
Compare that to a later recalling in Ebert’s review of another harrowing anime film, Tokyo Godfather:
…the themes are so harrowing that only animation makes them possible. I don’t think I’d want to see a movie in which a real baby had the adventures this one has.
I mean, in terms of the story, Tokyo Godfathers is a movie that really can be only done via something like animation. [As a bonus note, it's always fun to see one of the most popular and accessible movie critic trying to explain to everyday Americans how "real" anime expresses itself.] But in a way the power of anime is most potent when it deals with the most harrowing, the most tragic, and the most depressing.
Did anyone ever write a paper about how Japan’s collective trauma plays a part in this? Anyways.
Of course, this doesn’t mean sadface anime tend to do well. I think to Takahata’s credit, a film like Graves of the Fireflies also had that patient, measured and poetic rhythm, something that few anime has; it’s not slice-of-life for the sake of being a portrayal of life, but rather the impact is the best when presented in the silences of everyday life. It’s driven by the sinking realization of hopelessness, not by exasperation of melodrama. It is in the gap where we see Setsuko playing with piles of mud that we rend our hearts, not because, for example, it’s a pain in the butt to go home in Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 (not to single that one out, just the first to come to mind).
On a more positive note, did you know Satoshi Kon’s best-reviewed film on Rotten Tomato is Millennium Actress? Ebert didn’t write that one up. The news about Ebert only serves to remind me the passing of Kon, as these two, in my mind, are the greatest figure for anime in the movies in the 21st century from a westerner’s point of view. I just hope someone who will not die any time soon will show up and change my mind.