The first feature-length anime (slang for Japanese animation) that I saw, as opposed to TV shows such as Dragon Ball Z or Cowboy Bebop, was a Hayao Miyazaki film. He has directed some wonderful anime films which have been primarily aimed at children, such as Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) and My Neighbor Totoro (1988). I expected something light and charming.
The film that I saw was light and charming — but its subject matter was far deeper than I thought it would be. That film, The Wind Rises (2013), is a fictionalized biopic about Jiro Horikoshi. He is the man who designed the Zero fighter plane that Japan used in World War II. The Wind Rises deals with historical issues such as the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and the rise of fascism as well as personal issues such as the costs of pursuing your passion and dealing with the illness of a loved one. It’s a rich and moving film which upended my expectations of what an animated film could do.
In America, animation is generally thought of as a genre for children. In Japan, however, there is a longer tradition of regarding animation as a medium that can tell stories of varying genres. There are animes that are biopics, psychological thrillers, and even portraits of life during World War II such as Grave of the Fireflies (1994) and In This Corner of the World. Animes can also have any imagery that the animators wished, making some of them even more daring than live-action films.
When I think of dark anime films that would lose their power if they were live-action, the first film that comes to mind is Belladonna of Sadness (1973). It tells the story of Jeanne, a young Frenchwoman in medieval times. An evil lord sexually assaults Jeanne on her wedding night. Distraught, she eventually makes a pact with the devil to gain revenge.
Director Eiichi Yamamoto and his animators aren’t afraid to use horrifying imagery in this film. A sequence involving Jeanne’s assault features what is arguably the most disturbing shot I have ever seen and would be impossible to recreate in live-action because it is so explicit. The filmmakers also attracted some great acting talent to their film — legendary actor Tatsuya Nakadai turns in a vocal performance as The Devil that deserves to be ranked as one of the best interpretations of that character. Belladonna of Sadness is a hard film to watch, but it is definitely worth watching, and proof enough that animated films can be as complex as live-action ones.
There are some directors who have spent their entire careers making anime that are primarily for adults. One of the most internationally recognized is Satoshi Kon. His first film, Perfect Blue, is a psychological thriller that is as terrifying as anything Kon acolyte Darren Aronofsky has made. (Fun fact: Aronofsky owns the rights to Perfect Blue and has recreated a shot from it in two films, Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan.) Kon would make films in different genres throughout his career, including science fiction (Paprika) and drama (Millennium Actress). He proved, time and time again, that animation is a medium that can be as artistically challenging and adult as live-action.
Anime continues to be a major force worldwide. One recent film, Your Name, became the fourth highest grossing film in Japan of all time. That film exemplifies some of anime’s strengths — a serious and emotional look at life, a playful relationship with genre (it’s the best teen science-fiction romance film ever made), and a visual style that would not be as interesting if it was a live-action film. It is films like Your Name which suggest that the future of anime is as bright as its past.
Whether you love Japanese animation or have never experienced it before, the IU Cinema has you covered with upcoming screenings of Miss Hokusai on March 24 (Art and a Movie series) and the recently Oscar-nominated Mirai on April 7 (East Asian Film Series, International Arthouse Series, and CINEkids International Children’s Film Series).
Several anime classics have been shown over the years at the Cinema, including Grave of the Fireflies, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Ocean Waves, The Red Turtle, My Neighbor Totoro, Ponyo, Spirited Away, Akira, and Princess Mononoke.
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest and the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.