If you really want to disprove the theory of the Dark Age Animation, just look to Japan. Animation barely existed in the country during the Golden Age, coinciding as it did with the devastating effects of World War II and the postwar occupation. It’s hard to know how much the anime industry owes to the “economic miracle” of the ‘60s and how much it had to do with no longer having to compete with animated imports. Either way, the explosion of creativity is striking. If IMDb can be trusted, almost the minute Walt Disney died in 1966, Japan went from producing a handful of animated features a decade to at least that many every year. If nothing else, it’s no coincidence that Japan’s Golden Age of Animation coincides so closely with America’s Dark Age.
1988 was a uniquely strong year for feature anime. Two of the three movies I described as some of the greatest of all time at the beginning of the series came out that year, and so did the one I said “better critics than I would put at the same level.”
In production value, if nothing else, Akira was running circles around its Western competitors with its story of a “Neo-Tokyo” built on the ruins of the psychic-child-destroyed old city while angry young biker Tetsuo marches toward his destiny of repeating that history. Director/source material author Katsuhiro Otomo and studio Tokyo Movie Shinsha have no use for corner-cutting. Otomo wanted to make a film as packed with detail as his manga, and he succeeded. Even compared to other anime, this was a lavish production, priced at over a billion yen.
Everything in Akira is animated — the shine on leather couches that moves as their occupants shift their weight, the reflections in bikers’ goggles and in hospital floors, the hundreds of ice particles falling from a cryogenic chamber, the dozens of clouds of smoke emanating from an explosion. Like many of the year’s shorts, Akira simulates camera moves that require TMS to redraw the entire scene every frame — and they do it for incomparably more detailed settings, tossing out literally twice as many drawings. Like American animation, most anime is done “on twos” — even My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies. Akira is not. It was the first anime to record dialogue before animation for more exacting lipsyncs (you can guess how much fun that made it to dub).
In American animation, character is everything. Like many Japanese animators, Otomo found everything else in the frame just as interesting. This may explain why so many viewers come away feeling the cast is one-dimensional, but there’s still some great character work scattered throughout Akira — Tetsuo’s panic as he blocks a tank cartridge, his buddy Kaneda’s hilarious shit-eating grin as he’s being interrogated, and his interrogator’s equally hilarious exhaustion with him.
Akira finally made making its way to the US two years later, when the Dark Age was pretty solidly put to bed — thanks, in no small part to, TMS’s own for-hire work on era-defining series like DuckTales, Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs, and Batman, just to start. Akira had, if anything, more influence here than at home. As Persia wrote, it was the first anime millions of Americans ever saw. In fact, it was so popular in American theaters that it allowed TMS to finally recoup their massive budget.
Isolated from the ecosystem that produced it, Akira was even more mindblowing for American audiences. The Simpsons had debuted a year earlier and Fritz the Cat decades before that, but even in that context, this was animation doing something most American viewers had no idea it could do — tell a complex story that was both too dense and too full of sex and violence for the kids who Hollywood assumed were animation’s sole audience.
That’s appropriate to Akira’s themes too. This isn’t just a movie about adolescents, it’s a movie about adolescence itself. In his final, horrible transformation, Tetsuo screams “My body won’t do what I tell it to!” Anyone who’s been through puberty should relate. If the other characters aren’t particularly compelling, Tetsuo is still one of the most vivid personalities ever animated. A mess of hormones, jealousy, and self-loathing, he responds to suddenly discovering he has godlike powers about as well as any of us would have. The undirected anger he spews indiscriminately at everyone around him is horrific, but it’s hard not to empathize with.
Immortal Hulk writer Al Ewing once said “A teenager is a kid’s idea of a grown-up,” and by that standard, Akira is an adolescent work. Adult movies can show blood? Well, we’ll show it by the gallon. Adult movies deal with political intrigue? Well, we’ll give you more political intrigue than you can handle, even if it means the general who up to that point had been the lone voice of reason stages a military coup and shoots at the media without losing his creator’s sympathy. But no matter how muddled Akira’s narrative vision gets, its artistic vision is never less than stunning. Otomo and his team deserve credit for that — and so does Shōji Yamashiro, whose folk-influenced, chant-heavy score gives the images even more ominous power, even when he’s just directing a bunch of guys to literally say, “Dun dun dun!”
One advantage anime still has over its American cousins is variety, and all you have to do to see that is to compare Akira to My Neighbor Totoro. One imagines a world of unrelenting blood and horror. The other creates the kind of paradise we all wish we could live in. One runs at a breakneck pace to condense hundreds of pages of comics into a two-hour film. The other is remarkably patient, just sitting and watching as the most mundane events unfold. Both films are showcases for vivid environmental animation, but Totoro’s Hayao Miyazaki takes just as much interest in light glinting off an acorn and wind in the trees as Otomo does in explosions and monstrous transformations. And while it doesn’t privilege the cast over their surroundings, Totoro is packed full of beautiful character animation — Mei angrily hugging Satsuki after begging to join her at school, the mini-Totoros nervously sneaking by while she intently watches a vent under the house.
Totoro — or “Sosoro,” as I called it — was one of the first movies I ever loved. I went years without realizing Satsuki was a girl (dress and all) because her relationship with Mei was so close to mine with my own sister. And I was so enchanted with the camphor tree where Totoro lives that I started calling a tree in a local park “the camper tree.” There’s still a wide swath of electronic music I can’t listen to without thinking of Joe Hisaishi’s haunting score. (“Running Up That Hill?” Big Totoro energy.)
Now that I’m older, I can see Totoro’s not perfect. Hopefully I won’t get tarred and feathered for saying the beloved Catbus, with his wide smile that somehow never makes his even wider eyes squint, is kinda creepy. But as with Akira, there’s a power to Miyazaki’s vision that makes everything else irrelevant.
It’s often described as simply a “nice” movie, without any of the conflict or darkness most movies depend on. And that’s true, for the first two acts, but that just makes the climax more emotionally gutting. Even when it’s just Mei and Satsuki playing with their magical friends, there’s always the lingering question of their mom in the hospital. Miyazaki finally confronts them with the possibility of losing her when they receive a worryingly vague telegram. Mei and Satsuki almost lose each other as a result, first when they start fighting and then when Mei runs away to the hospital. As easygoing as most of Totoro is, the hunt for Mei is one of the tensest sequences in movie history. That’s especially true in the subtly horrifying moment when Satsuki learns Mei’s sandal has been found in the lake and the film cuts, silently, to the lake and then closer and closer to the floating shoe.
I don’t think the way most viewers forget Totoro’s darkest moments is either their or Miyazaki’s fault. If anything, it shows the power of catharsis. A movie where everything is alright for two hours wouldn’t have such a profound effect on generations of viewers, child and adult, as Totoro does — it’s the fact that everything turns out alright when hope seems lost that gives the movie its power.
When it released Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies, Ghibli was a young, struggling studio that was unable to get funding for either unless investors could hedge their bets as a package deal. In a lot of ways, Isao Takahata’s film is the opposite of Totoro. People often describe Totoro as a warm blanket and Fireflies, with its story of two children, Seita and Stesuko, who lose their mother and their home to allied firebombings, as something more like an endurance test. Takahata dragged his feet on the project because of all the traumatic memories it dredged up, while Miyazaki drew from his happiest childhood memories for Totoro.
But their juxtaposition also makes it hard not to draw parallels. It’s also a movie about two siblings, and Setsuko is about the same age as Mei. Sometimes these parallels throw the differences into sharp relief: seeing these two characters back to back emphasizes how much more realistic Takahata’s animation is than Miyazaki’s, especially in the scenes of each girl crying. (Not always a good thing — the characters can dip into the uncanny valley occasionally, especially when their every contour is illuminated by the lights of the fireflies.) Takahata’s Nishikawa looks a lot like Miyazaki’s unnamed rural village, and both settings seem to share the same rice paddies. By the time Seita mentions planting a camphor tree on his mother’s grave, I started to suspect Takahata was fucking with me.
Totoro imagines an ideal world for children, but Fireflies takes place in a world that’s actively hostile to them. Many critics have pointed out how Mei and Satsuki’s parents depart from formula and encourage their children’s imaginations instead of insisting that what they see isn’t real. Totoro takes place in a close-knit community where everyone takes care of each other. Grave of the Fireflies is just the opposite. The firebombing of Kobe is appropriately horrific, but Takahata seems far less upset at the Allies than the Imperial Japanese hyper-nationalism that provoked them. The anonymous man screaming “Long live the emperor!” in the ruins while everyone around him struggles is poignantly ridiculous. When I first saw it, I thought Seita abandoning his aunt to camp out by the lake — the decision that eventually kills both children — was just childish pettiness. This time, I realized he was driven to it by unconscionably cruel adults who berate a grieving child for laziness and demand he pay his own way and “help the nation.”
And yet, Grave of the Fireflies refuses to affect me as strongly as it has so many others. I spent a lot of the runtime alternately resenting myself and the movie that it could move so many other people so much and me so little — but I probably would have been better off blaming the impossible hype it’s developed on the internet as “The Most Traumatizing Movie Ever!!!”
Some of Grave’s most powerful moments find beauty in the midst of tragedy, like Seita washing himself in a broken water pipe or the fireflies that give the movie its title. But Takahata leans on that approach so hard it’s easy to forget there is any tragedy. It doesn’t help that he frontloads the horror, beginning at the end with Seita’s death in a train station, unnoticed or actively belittled by the crowds passing by. The firebombing follows soon after, including some horribly graphic rendering of the mother’s burned face, before we’re abruptly shipped off to the realtively pastoral vision of Nishikawa. Ghibli’s animators spent the production of Fireflies jumping back and forth between it and Totoro, and the middle section ends up a hybrid of harrowing war movie and Totoro-ish comforting family film that never quite gels. That approach makes some sense, since this is at least nominally for children — but that opening stretch seems guaranteed to scare them out of the theater before Takahata has time to sweeten the pill.
And yet, even I have to admit some moments haunt even me. I’m thinking especially of the scene after Seita learns his mother has died and looks out over a vast, flattened desert where Kobe used to be. My first thought was it could be a Surrealist painting, but then the horrible realization hit me that this was all too real. If nothing else, I have to give Grave credit for forcing the world to confront these buried memories.