An Anime Primer, #2: Garden of Words, Grave of the Fireflies, Haibane Renmei

A haunting, rain-filled movie about relationships, a harrowing WW2 childhood drama, and an enigmatic series about angel-like creatures in a strange town.
Grave of the Fireflies - Isao Takahata
Grave of the Fireflies

Read Part 1.

Garden of Words by Makoto Shinkai

Garden of Words

One tremendous power of the animated film absent in other media is the director’s ability to exert exact command over the work’s aural and visual landscapes. Akira Kurosawa was known for strenuously engaging his props in an attempt to master the scenery that would present itself to his viewers. With the rise of better animation and better animation techniques, a director of Kurosawa’s mien could probably pretty easily drown in his ability to tell his stories with a precision unmatched in even the greatest and most careful of films. We get a sense of that in Makoto Shinkai’s jaw-droppingly beautiful The Garden of Words.

My children will forever know The Garden of Words as “The Rain Movie.” Shinkai and his animators take the simple act of precipitation, divide its essence, absorb it molecularly, and using their intimate, experiential knowledge of the phenomenon, reproduce it on film in a manner previously unseen. Their depiction is not realistic — it is more than realistic. It gets to the heart of rain. It is perhaps the first truly honest experience of rain that many of us will be able to claim. In so romanticizing the simplicity of falling particles of water, Makoto Shinkai has done as much for rendering the natural world with awe as David Attenborough and the BBC have done with their sublime engagements of the animal kingdom.

And though my children know The Garden of Words as “The Rain Movie,” the film is not children’s fare. Its title alone gives hint to the film’s demand for the centrality of the poetic experience. Across his filmography, Shinkai has shown himself a student of the spaces, large and small, that exist between two people — between men and women. He does little to extricate himself from his reputation as a director concerned with relationships. He has no need to. He does this with such beauty and warmth and coldness and passion and pain and redemption and anguish and love that he could continue these experiments into the nature of the entwined human spirit indefinitely and I would never complain. He is that good. And if the wealth of control with which he moves from palette to production remains anywhere within the orbit of the talent evident in The Garden of Words, then his future works will surely continue to make the mundane into the celestial. — Seth Hahne

Grave of the Fireflies by Isao Takahata

Grave of the Fireflies - Isao Takahata

Anime is so closely associated with action, fantasy, and science fiction that it can be a shock to experience its potential for realistic human drama. The harrowing wartime period piece Grave of the Fireflies, despite a bit of magical realism involving the spirits of two young Japanese children who die of malnutrition during the final months of World War II, is among the most potent cinematic explorations of childhood and tragedy I’ve ever seen.

The story, adapted by Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata from a semi-autobiographical 1967 novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, follows a teenaged boy named Seita and his young sister Setsuko on a downward spiral, beginning with the firebombing of their home city of Kobe. Although the ghastly details linger in the memory, the film is no less sensitive to the quiet and even blissful moments in the last two months of the siblings’ lives, from a happy day at the beach to an evening of catching fireflies at dusk.

What does animation add to this story? Couldn’t it be filmed in live action? Perhaps in the 1940s, when Japan was still ravaged by the war, a tale like Grave of the Fireflies could have been filmed in a neorealist style, in the actual devastation it depicts. But the story itself is the product of decades of reflection, and the scale of production design necessary to recreate the setting would have dwarfed the intimate human story at its heart. Animation allows the story to be, in a sense, itself, with the purity of aching memories stripped to their bare essence. — Steven D. Greydanus

Haibane Renmei by Tomokazu Tokoro

Haibane Renmei

I’ve already written at length about Haibane Renmei, but this remarkable little series deserves all the attention it can get. Proof that anime can be thoughtful, contemplative, and even — dare I say? — spiritual, Haibane Renmei is an enigmatic delight. The series follows a group of angel-like creatures called Haibane, and their newest member, a young woman named Rakka. Born into a strange town with no memories, complete with halos and wings that don’t work, Rakka and her fellow Haibane work odd jobs around town but must live apart from normal humans.

Over time, the series’ mysteries continue to grow. What, exactly, are the Haibane? What is this strange town in which they live? Why can nobody except the strange-looking “Toga” pass beyond the town’s massive walls? And what is the Haibane Renmei, the organization that oversees the Haibane?

The series starts off gently enough, as we catch glimpses of the Haibane’s everyday lives and relationships, and the ways in which they interact with the neighboring humans. However, the series slowly moves into more sublime territory as Rakka faces a growing existential crisis — one that comes to a head when her a best friend, another Haibane named Kuu, suddenly disappears. What at first seemed like a gentle fantasy series becomes something more, as the truth behind the Haibane’s world is slowly revealed, and Rakka must come to terms with her past. Not all of its mysteries are resolved, though, making Haibane Renmei a nice series to revisit and consider again and again. — Jason Morehead

Note: Haibane Renmei is currently streaming on Hulu.

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