The Power of Animation

Akiyuki Nosaka (Novelist of “Grave of the Fireflies”)

In my novel, “Grave of the Fireflies” published by Shincho Bunko, it seems that more women than men have read it. Now, it is being made into an animated movie. There have been several discussions about turning this novel into a film before, and the most promising proposal came from Junzo Iwase, the president of Bestsellers who passed away last year in 1986. The timeline of “Grave of the Fireflies” spans from early summer to the end of summer in 1945, which is right after the end of World War II. The setting is the burnt ruins, a pond, river, and open field where fireflies dance wildly. The characters include a skinny boy, a little girl, and adults filled with murderous intent, hunger, and the fear of losing everything they own or the foreboding of such loss. More than anything, how can one depict that summer of the year, filled with a peculiar brightness amidst the imminent homeland final battle, essentially facing the extinction of the nation, and a reckless abandon that’s not just desperation?

When it comes to turning novels into films, I’ve never made any specific requests. I believe the two mediums are distinct and regardless of how the film adaptation might transform the original, it’s none of my concern. However, I did have a particular attachment to “Grave of the Fireflies”.

This novel overlaps significantly with my personal experiences. As I’ve written before, I wasn’t as kind to my younger sister as the boy in the story. Even if it’s a work of fiction, I portrayed the surrounding adults rather negatively. It carries a melodramatic tone which brings me not just remorse but a deeper sense of guilt. If the story was turned into a tragic tale of wartime victims, I would feel even more uncomfortable. Moreover, how would one accurately depict the burnt landscapes or the faces of starving people? Makeup can’t capture the genuine expression of hunger. The novel doesn’t address this, but I strongly feel the need to portray that era in its entirety: a time when people weren’t exactly prepared for or accepted the idea of total annihilation but merely drifted through uncertain days with a strangely nonchalant attitude. In other words, turning it into a film seems impossible.

In Harlingen, Texas, USA, there’s a unique “Flying Museum” which houses military aircrafts primarily from World War II, all of which are still flight-capable. There’s a replica of a Japanese Zero fighter, but it remains the sole survivor. It has been used in atomic bomb demonstrations, stirring up controversy. Iwase had the idea to make it fly over a large-scale replica of the city of Kobe, built in the Arizona desert, and actually rain it with incendiary bombs. He even thought of making the actors fast. Considering this grand idea, I went as far as Texas for an interview for another magazine and even boarded the plane.

Iwase passed away, leaving it as a dream story.

And then came the talk of animation. I agreed to it. I had several conversations with Director Isao Takahata and walked with the staff in the places depicted in the novel. Whether it’s called a rough sketch or something else, we confirmed the image, and I decided to leave it up to them, feeling like I was taking a little adventure.

Forty-odd years ago and now, the scenery is naturally very different. I was worried about whether the expression of a starving child could be captured using the so-called animation technique. But this was a clear sign of my ignorance. When I saw the sketches, I was genuinely amazed. Each leaf’s tip, the fireflies that crowded around, the appearance of the grassy area covering the babbling stream, all were depicted as if by miracle. The illustrator and director’s imaginations accurately filled in my clumsy explanations, leaving me utterly stunned.

The place I showed the staff was where I had spent over two months, an area that overlaps with the setting of the novel, a bit away from the houses and path. I justified to myself that it had probably changed completely since then. To be honest, even now, I’m afraid to approach the place; for me, it’s like a crime scene. Nevertheless, just like Sherlock Holmes, the staff seemed to have accurately grasped the “Grave of the Fireflies” and, more broadly, the time and space I had experienced, even though they never experienced it themselves.

Thanks to that, I feel a kind of liberation.

I’ve always avoided looking directly into the mirror that reflects the self who wrote “Grave of the Fireflies.” Now, I am facing my past, which has been drawn out from one of those rough sketches, a little more honestly.

Truly, the power of animation is something to be feared.

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