Sunday, September 7, 2014

Can We Confront the Fire and Blast of Nuclear War and Still Remain Human? (Watching "Grave of the Fireflies")

A touch of humanity: Sakuma candies
I recently wrote that we need to do more to to confront the reality of nuclear war. I suggested that, instead of trying to put the fire and the blast of nuclear war out of view, we should articulate a curriculum about it and confront it.

Everybody knows about a few seminal resources like the book Hiroshima by John Hersey. Another essential resource is an animated film (anime) from Japan: Grave of the Fireflies.

Grave of the Fireflies captures the experience of the people in Japanese cities in the last months of WWII. It doesn't specifically depict the fire of the nuclear bombing; but it does convey the experience of the fire-bombing.

It's about the children

Grave of the Fireflies: Seita, with Setsuko on his back,
searches for a way out as the neighborhood erupts in flames
following a U.S. firebombing.
The main reason I think Grave of the Fireflies is so important is the way it conveys the horror of the fire-bombing, and at the same time gets you to embrace the two children portrayed as human beings.

I particularly like a scene of the two children on the beach. I was amazed at the way the animators captured the facial expressions and movements and moods of the little sister, Setsuko.  (Perhaps you have to have spent some time around toddlers to see just how precise the characterization is.)

The scenes in which the children try to escape their neighborhood as the incendiary bombs fall, and the fire rapidly spreads through all the wooden houses, is truly terrifying. I realized that this is a hellish situation which animation is actually able to help us imagine in a way that is more impactful, perhaps, than even what could be accomplished with live action.

And, of course, it is the combination of the fire and the fact that it is a couple of children that are up against it that makes the reality of Grave of the Fireflies so undeniable.

Doorway to a large (graphic, sci-fi) literature in Japan

I think Grave of the Fireflies is especially important as a part of the "Curriculum of Fire and Blast" because young people are especially likely to connect to it.

First, it is a product of the tremendously successfuly Studio Ghibli -- and thus is a "sister" creation to a set of anime films -- such as My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, Kiki's Delivery Service, and many more -- that young people really connect to.

Little Boy: The Arts of Japan's Exploding Subculture,
exhibition catalog by Takashi Murakami.
In addition, it is a "cousin" of a much wider oeuvre of Japanese pop culture, much of it relating directly or indirectly to the experience of the atomic bombing. This literature is explained in fascinating detail in the illustrated catalog, Little Boy: The Arts of Japan's Exploding Subculture, by Takashi Murakami. Some of the works covered range from the Barefoot Gen series -- a literal chronicling of a boy's experience in Japan at the time of the atomic bombing -- to science fiction works like Akira, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and many, many more.. Again: these are tremendously accessible to young people.

Hanging on to our humanity

A motif that runs through the film, and that no one who sees Grave of the Fireflies can ever forget, is the tin of "Sakuma" brand fruit candies.

Grave of the Fireflies: Sakuma candies
We see the brother and sister share the candies.

We see the relish with which the little sister savors the candies.

We can appreciate at a distance how these little treats can be an object of desire, a symbol of stewardship and hope for the future, and an outlet for the senses, even in the midst of devastation.

Grave of the Fireflies: Are there any left?
And more . . .

The tidy tin and beautiful, brightly-colored candies are a little piece of civility, of the pleasure of human craft, that we can all see and keep relating to in the film.

Most of all, the tin, the candies -- in fact, all of Grave of the Fireflies -- remind us that the whole point is to somehow remain human.

[UPDATE May 18, 2015 -- I just attended a screening of Grave of the Fireflies here in Chicago during a series of screenings of Studio Ghibli films. I was astonished all over again at how terrifying the scenes of the firebombing were. Just a few weeks ago, I was in New York City for the Peace and Planet events, where I heard Daniel Ellsberg stress that we need to tell the truth about the criminal firebombing of Japanese cities by the US in 1945, and how it made the use of nuclear weapons possible. (More here.)  Just a few days earlier, I had watched the film Fog of War. In that film, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara also makes the connection between the fire bombing and the decision to use nuclear weapons.  And he describes General Curtis LeMay, the commander in charge of the bombing, saying, "If we'd lost the war, we'd all have been prosecuted as war criminals."]

Related posts

"It's not enough to remember this just once a year; it's not enough that we make a single book -- Hiroshima -- required reading, and never go beyond that. There should be a whole canon that people study progressively, year by year, to grasp and retain the horror of this."

(See FIRE AND BLAST: A Curriculum that Confronts Nuclear Danger?)

I don't think Alanna and I ever talked about what it must be like to be trying to escape a shower of sparks and hot ash. But she seemed to know that the sparks and hot ash are too important a part of the picture to be left out.

(See The Children Are Waiting )

The spectre of cities on fire was a particularly Japanese reality in 1954.  What will a Godzilla produced in the U.S. in 2013 zero in on? Will the American Godzilla evoke a particularly American pain? To what end?

(See GODZILLA! and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves . . . )

I'm trying to understand: "What was Hayao Miyazaki thinking (when he made his latest animated film, The Wind Rises)?" How can this most humane (and antiwar) of artists created an homage to the creator of the Japanese Zero fighter plane?

(See Boys and Their Toys (Trying to Understand "The Wind Rises"))

It's a pitch-perfect antiwar tale -- timeless.  You can read about it on the Michael Sporn Animation blog, and watch it in two parts on Youtube. I don't know what part of "The Hat" I like best: the totally convincing dialogue (spoken by Dizzy Gillespie and Dudley Moore)? the original soundtrack they created?  the mythic arc of the story? the exquisite drawings? Where are we going to get more of this kind of work to power the movement to abolish war?

(See Antiwar Animation: A Lost Art? )

Eventually, in large part due to Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, the United States was converted from a country in which a small number of people thought slavery needed to be ended into a country determined to act to end slavery. This literary work took the movement wide, and it took it deep.

Why is a novel an important tool for creative resistance?

(See Creative Resistance 101: Uncle Tom's Cabin )

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