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Andrew Osmond on a unique anime anniversary

This month, nearly thirty cinemas around Britain and Eire will screen Studio Ghibli’s My Neighbour Totoro, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, and Grave of the Fireflies, directed by Isao Takahata. It’s been 25 years since they were first shown together in Japanese cinemas in 1988, contemporaries of Akira and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. It’s long struck anime fans as the strangest double-bill imaginable: joy next to tragedy, childhood games beside infant funerals, smiling nature spirits versus the horrors of World War II. And yet many would rate them Ghibli’s greatest films of all.

The decision to release Totoro and Fireflies together was strictly business. Contrary to what you might think, Totoro depended on Fireflies, not vice versa. When Totoro was originally pitched, none of the Japanese investors thought it could sell – what, two kids and some furry monster in rural Japan in the 1950s?

It was Fireflies which clinched the deal. Partly it was because Shinchosha, which had published the original Grave of the Fireflies story, wanted to get into film-making, even at a loss. It was also because Grave, unusually for a cartoon, had a clear educational value. Maybe Japanese kids wouldn’t particularly want to see it, but schools might well show it to them to give them a sense of life during the war years, much as generations of British schoolkids watched TV’s How We Used to Live.

And maybe some kids, especially older one, would be drawn to wartime tragedies that featured children like them. Long before Grave was made, Hayao Miyazaki wrote that Japanese teenagers read The Diary of Anne Frank out of a perverse envy for Anne’s situation. “They may wish that they, too, could live life to the fullest amidst such tension, in such an extreme environment.” Grave is full of intense experiences. The boy Seita sluices his face with water from a burst pipe; the girl Setsuko capers in a cloud of fireflies; the children shrink terrified from a rain of incendiaries.

But then, Totoro has very much the same appeal, the idea of living to the fullest in a world without mod-cons, telly or the internet. It’s one of many ways in which Totoro and Fireflies mirror each other, apparently without any plan to do so. It reflects that they were made by two colleagues who had worked together for more than a decade, on projects such as an epic TV version of Heidi – yet another anime about living life to the fullest, this time in the Alps.

Both Totoro and Grave feature child siblings, one an infant very dependent on the other. The youngsters face the devastation of losing one or both parents, and must fall on the kindness of other adults, with very different results in each film. If there’s one ‘connecting’ moment between the films, it’s when each little girl picks up an insect or bug and accidentally squishes it. Both times, it’s a cute, humorous moment – but with a melancholy hint, that the world is a place of fragile, breakable things, like little children.

Both films are intensely personal. The autobiographical side of Totoro is well-known, rooted in Miyazaki’s childhood when his mother was confined to hospital for years. (There will be a drama some day – whether in cinemas or on television, live-action or animated – about Miyazaki’s early life, though perhaps it will only be made when he’s no longer with us.)

The reality behind Fireflies is more complex. Takahata based it on a semi-autobiographical story by another person, Akiyuki Nosaka; you can find the details here. Yet it’s also grounded in Takahata’s own experience of running through a burning city, aged nine, together with his older sister. Remember that when you watch the intense early scene of Setsuko and Seita caught in an air-raid – this is from Takahata’s own memory. It brings the film into relief, much like whenyou realise that Godzilla’s Eiji Tsubuyara, who destroyed Tokyo in the 1954 film, had survived the Great Tokyo Air Raid just nine years earlier.

Regarding the oft-asked question about whether the Japanese cinemas showed the upbeat Totoro first, or the heartbreaking Fireflies, it seems to have been entirely up to the cinemas in question. However, it would surely have made sense, Greek theatre-style,  to show the sad film first, and then cheer everyone up. Takahata himself admitted that when Totoro was shown first, the audiences who’d been laughing at furry nature spirits weren’t inclined to see his story of starving children to its end.

In fact, not many Japanese people did see the original double-bill. Ghibli’s Toshio Suzuki acknowledged it didn’t draw great audiences; its importance was to give Ghibli critical cachet, with both films winning great acclaim. We’ve discussed Totoro’s long-term legacy on this blog, but the legacy of Fireflies is also worth mentioning. In anime, it has no obvious descendants. However, it’s a precursor – and maybe an inspiration? – to two much later animated films, both autobiographical, about modern war: Persepolis from France and Waltz with Bashir from Israel.

In live-action, one might compare the Holocaust drama The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas – another film with an obvious educational component for children – and two Japanese remakes of Fireflies, made for television (2005) and cinema (2008). Both versions are obviously reliant on viewers’ memories of the anime to “sell” the story in live-action, and practically clone Takahata’s most memorable images. More interesting was the announcement last December that Britain’s Dresden Pictures has acquired the rights to the film. Perhaps it will transfer the tragedy to another part of the war-blighted world?

2013 was originally meant to see another Miyazaki/Takahata double-bill. Ghibli announced the joint release of Miyazaki’s Kaze Tachinu (The Wind is Rising) and Takahata’s Kaguya-hime no Monogatari (The Tale of Princess Kaguya). The mixed double, though, was not to be. As of writing, Kaguya-hime no Monogatari has moved back in the schedule and is due for a separate release in Autumn, though trailers for both films can be seen together in Japanese cinemas. (This writer caught them in front of Les Miserables!)

The films seem well-suited to the respective directors. Kaze Tachinu returns to Miyazaki’s well-known love of vintage aircraft (see Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso and reams of his manga). The film tells the life of the historical aviation designer Jiro Horikoshi. There’s an obvious family connection – Miyazaki was born when his name adorned the wartime family business Miyazaki Airplane, which serviced the Zero fighter planes Horikoshi designed.

Takahata’s Kaguya-Hime is based on a Japanese folklore staple, “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,” a tenth-century story of a baby found in a bamboo stalk. Anyone who’s seen Takahata’s Pom Poko knows the director’s interest in Japanese folklorethere was even a “Bamboo Cutter” gag in Takahata’s My Neighbours the Yamadas, where the baby Nonoko is found the same way. Judging by the Kaguya-Hime trailer, the film will be in a very “drawn,” graphic style, reflecting Takahata’s love of foreign animators such as Russia’s Yuri Norstein and France’s Michel Ocelot.

And yet, it’s doubtful that Kaze Tachinu or Kaguya-hime no Monogatari will have the intensely personal qualities of My Neighbour Totoro or Grave of the Fireflies. Anniversaries seldom live up to the original event, though far more people will flock to see them than they did in 1988, when “Miyazaki” and “Takahata” were known only to a few cartoon fans. So do yourself a favour, get down to a Totoro/Fireflies screening in Blighty, and see two of the greatest artworks that anime and Japanese cinema have ever made.

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