With its feminist, pro-environment and anti-war messages, ‘Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind’, would fundamentally change the game of what kinds of stories animated films could tell.
The success of the Japanese production was a massive stepping stone for the industry, paving the way for studios to fund more experimental projects that pushed boundaries. Classics like ‘Akira’ and ‘Ghost in The Shell’ followed and they went on to become popular overseas and significantly alter the perception of animation as a medium.
Today, the animated film circuit for adults has expanded, with countries like the United States, Britain, Germany, Canada, France, Japan, Korea and China constituting major markets. Here, then, are some examples of animated films with mature themes and intelligent storytelling which brought our cultural biases under scrutiny, by challenging dominant narratives.
A common rhetoric adopted by much of Western media is that there is a cultural war going on between the west and the Middle East, that it is a clash of civilisations. In this way, an entire region with immense ethnic diversity is painted with a broad brush and othered in our eyes. It is exactly this false stereotype that Ari Folman’s film deconstructs by featuring a Middle Eastern-protagonist and using a highly expressive animation style that helps us relate to his personal journey, his doubts, struggles and desires. At the same time, the film also sheds light on an important chapter in the Israel-Palestine conflict and the use of archival footage reinforces the impact of those events. It’s a reminder that dominant narratives of history can often have very real skeletons hidden in their closets.
Persepolis, which is based on Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel by the same name, too, challenges western media preconceptions about Muslims and points out the absurdities of such stereotypes. The animation style, which combines Italian neo-realism with German expressionism, itself goes a long way in universalising the characters, wiping away their ‘otherness’ and making them easily identifiable and relatable.
Persepolis showcases the fact that one can be a religious Muslim and still uphold progressive values. In fact, strong feminist themes underpin much of the film’s story through the character of our protagonist Marji and her unrelenting defiance in the face of a society that refuses to treat women as anything but second class citizens.
Ramayana was never a feminist masterpiece and in the narrative driven by our patriarchal society, Rama is usually portrayed as a divine and infallible icon of virtue. Nina Paley’s quirky and irreverent adaptation of the Ramayana is a fantastic feminist subversion of the traditionally patriarchal reading of the Rama/Sita relationship. Paley’s film chooses to focus on Sita and channels fierce sympathy for Sita’s mistreatment at the hands of her husband.
It also removes Ramayana from its position as some hegemonic and monolithic scriptural text solely reserved for hardline Hindutva outfits and instead brings it back into the realm of mythology. While the interpretation of monolithic scriptures rests in the hands of a few self-appointed pontiffs, myths live and breathe among us, constantly reshaping themselves, informed as they are by a plurality of narratives. Myths can also be reclaimed. In our country where women still retain little power over their own marriages, by challenging the patriarchal male-centric narrative of the Ramayana, Paley encourages women to reclaim their own narratives for themselves.
Unlike most animated films which feature princes, princesses or characters generally within the fold of civic society, the late Satoshi Kon’s ‘Tokyo Godfathers’ features an unlikely trio of protagonists: three homeless characters, one of them a trans woman. What Kon has done here is he’s taken characters from the margins of society and instead of invoking pity, he’s made us empathise with them. These characters are outcasts, people who are broken and yet ones who radiate such exuberant warmth. The film never tries to romanticise poverty; the dank alleys of Tokyo are fittingly miserable and filthy.
The characters themselves have dark and traumatic pasts but at its heart, Tokyo Godfathers is a film about redemption and self-affirmation. Perhaps fittingly, the animation style runs the gamut from richly detailed to gloriously absurd. Also to its credit, the film never falls back on old transphobic tropes so prevalent in most animated features. The character of Hana, the trans woman, is fully fleshed out and easy to empathise with and remains one of Kon’s most endearing creations.
Directed by Hiroyuki Okiura and written by Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell), Jin Roh is set in an alternative 1950s Japan which has increasingly started to resemble a fascist police state. Ostentatiously a political drama, the film actually looks into the consequences certain political choices have on certain people. The storytelling in Jin Roh utilises the full scope of the medium endowing our core characters with visual ticks which help us grow attached to them without the plot explicitly telling us we have to.
One area where Jin Roh really succeeds is effectively blurring the line between law enforcement and the supposed terrorists. While the terrorists use questionable tactics, theirs is a response to a police state that employs a special unit that is clad in heavy armour from head to foot and fires machine guns that shred human beings like papier mache. Jin Roh, which literally means ‘human wolves’ in Japanese, ponders whether enlistment in such organisations necessitates leaving behind one’s own sense of humanity.
Most war films make clear distinctions between the good guys and the bad guys. We root for the good guys, watch their struggles and sacrifice, and cheer aloud when they finally triumph over evil. Directed by Isao Takahata, Grave of the Fireflies eschews this simplistic ‘us’ versus ‘them’ narrative. Instead, Grave Of The Fireflies is a heart-wrenching meditation on the cost of war, and the devastating effects it has on civilian lives caught all too unwittingly in the crossfire.
It follows the harrowing and heartbreaking journey of a young boy Seita and his little sister Setsuko as they struggle to survive in the final days of World War II era Japan. While most World War II films focus on the heroism and courageousness of American soldiers, by choosing to focus on Japanese civilians, Takahata effectively shows that in real life, war is a special kind of hell that leaves only carnage and devastation in its wake and brings about immense human suffering no matter which side you’re on.
Soumadri Banerjee is an intern with Youth Ki Awaaz for the batch of February-March 2017.