Animage 1987 Interview – Isao Takahata and Akiyuki Nosaka – Part One

Interview between Isao Takahata and Akiyuki Nosaka, the director and the creator of Grave of the Fireflies, they discuss the complex process of transferring Nosaka’s story to film.

About how the book ended up into a movie:

Animage: First of all, can Director Takahata tell us what compelled you to choose this time to make this book into a movie?

Takahata: When i first read the novel, i felt like the main character Seita was a unique wartime ninth grader. That’s what i found interesting. I thought boys back then had an iron will to live, that they had to develop stoicism to survive. I didn’t think that changed from wartime to the post-war recovery and the following period of high economic growth. Boys may have changed what they were doing, but their basic attitude didn’t change.

Nosaka: Yes.

Takahata: But Seita is different. When he’s insulted by his aunt, he isn’t stoic but withdraws and goes away to do other things. He doesn’t endure it. I think Seita’s feelings, those kind of feelings, are better understood by today’s children. It’s my generation that thinks he has to endure it. Today’s children have the phrase: “It pisses me off”*. They base their decisions on whether something is pleasant or not. That way of being and Seita’s activities have something in common. It’s not only the children….i think the times are becoming that way, as well. That’s why i thought it would be very nice if i could make that story into a movie today.

*[Mukatsuku, ムカつく, from the japanese word Muka-Muka, “be offended; get angry”]

Nosaka: The main character is rather spoiled for a wartime child. In that sense, i think today’s children would become just like him if they were put into the same situation. That brother and sister can only survive that harsh environment by locking themselves up into a world of their own. When they lose their sole guardian, their mother, the older brother decides to become the guardian of his little sister, even if it means making an enemy out of the entire world. He gets to the point where he thinks he wouldn’t mind turning himself into nourishment for his sister. On the one, that’s very tragic, but it’s also a blessed situation. For Seita, it’s like he can try to build a heaven for just the two of them.

Takahata: I understand that very well.

Nosaka: After all, it’s a double suicide story.

Takahata: That’s true. I feel that very strongly when i first read the book. I felt something in common with Chikamatsu’s* double-suicide plays. I thought it was that in its structure, as well. It starts with the premise that the main characters must die, and the story follows the path to their death. Except that i think you were right when you said “Heaven”. I’d like to depict it that way in the movie, too.

*Chikamatsu Monzaemon, pen name of Nobumori Sugimori, 1653-1725, author of “The Love Suicides at Amijima” a play which contrasted the “Ninjo” [Individual Emotion] of the doomed couple against the “Giri” [Social Obligation] of the society.

Nosaka: In fact, when it comes to reality, that boy isn’t such a romanticist. After all, he gets hungry too. But objectively speaking, Setsuko is four years old, the age when a girl looks the cutest. And a 14-to-15 years old boy is at the age when he’s becoming aware of his masculinity, ergo his ego. That kind of pair heads into a life that includes the two of them. There’s an obvious consanguineous relationship there. The only person he can exchange words with is his sister, but while there’s a strong blood-tie, he’s shut out from being able to lover her as a girl. His tension grows high–hence a sublimation takes place.

Takahata: Yes.

Nosaka: The sister too, becomes affected by the change in the environment and the change in her brother, and has to grow up quickly. Eventually, she assumes the role of his mother at times, and at other times, the role of his lover. She is overwhelmingly dependent on him, but she also becomes his spiritual support. So when the sister starts to perish physically, the brother has no choice but see her becoming even more beautiful. It’s like the sweet delusions of boyhood. In the end, it turns out that the days leading up to their deaths are like the development of a love story.

Takahata: Since the first time i read the novel, i wanted to animate it. Now, i’m seeing how that dream comes true.

Nosaka: There were many offers to make that novel into a movie, but they never materialized. It was impossible to recreate the barren, scorched earth that’s to be the backdrop of the story, and i thought today’s children could never play the main characters in live-action. He’s supposed to be a starved boy, but what if a kid with a fat belly showed up on screen to play him? A grown-up might be able to considerate for that with the acting and suspend disbelief*, but that wouldn’t work with this movie. I was very surprised when your offer came to me. That it would get made into a movie as animation! I thought animated features were a simple pleasure viewing for summer vacations [LAUGHS]. A boy’s adventure, or courage, that sort of thing…I never thought a sad story like this one would ever be animated.

*Willingness to suspend one’s critical faculties and believe the unbelievable; sacrifice of realism for the sake of tell the premise and enjoy.

Takahata: It’s natural that many animated stories are adventure ones, and that’s not a bad thing in itself. But at the same time, i’ve felt a contradiction in that, whether it’s animated or not, a wartime story tends to be moving and tear-inducing, but the young people reading or watching such story have a certain inferiotity complex in relation to it. They think people back then were much more noble and that they wouldn’t be able to do such things themselves. But i think that’s not right. We make stories to give courage to the people, but then the audience feels the story has nothing to do with them. So i wanted a common ground for the audience to relate to. I felt that way before i came in contact with this book.

Nosaka: I just saw a storyboard at your studio, and i realized that this could only have been done with animation.

Takahata: Did you think so?

Nosaka: It’s just the way it was. From the rice paddies in the background to the townscape. That wouldn’t be possible filiming at some location in live-action. I’ve looked for a photo of that place from that time period, but i’ve yet to find it. So when i saw your sketch a few minutes ago, i was surprised how faithfully was rendered.

Takahata: The main character is hard to animate. Just like today’s junior high students, a 14-years old looks unemotional or grumpy or emotionally unbalanced. It’s reflected in their bodies and facial expressions. But in animation basically line-drawings and expressions are always exaggerated, so it’s hard to animate such expressions. An animated laugh is the happiest thing in the world, and a crying face is an all-out tear fest. It’s a genre where quick swings in mood are the norm, so it’s a big adventure trying to depict a boy at puberty, it’s a big problem. We are trying to get as close to the image of Seita as we can.

Nosaka: I see.

Takahata: And his little sister is even harder. I worked on a Anime called “Heidi of the Alps” before, and the main character starts out at the age of five. I thought i could just depict the idealized 5-years old girl from the book, but i’ve never handled a girl younger than that. On top of that, i haven’t depicted Japan before [LAUGHS] That’s because, in japanese animation, you’re not allowed to depict Japan with much realism. We can research a lot about foreign countries, though. If it’s Heidi, we can go to Switzerland to do research. But that hasn’t been done for a japanese story.

Nosaka: It must be also be hard to depict a time when dying was taken for granted. It must be beyond imagination. That you might wake up next to a corpse the very next morning. That after an air raid like a passing storm, there’d be corpses lying everywhere. The townscape changed overnight.

Takahata: I think it’ll be hard to depict that. But despite the difficulties, the animation staff is determined to take advantage of the tangible expression peculiar to animation. We’re up to the challenge of not only using character’s facial expressions, but seeing what can be done with the entire body of the characters. Or how to depict Setsuko in a way true to her personality.

About The Coloring:

If you watch closely, the illustration outlines are done in brown, not the usual black of most of the japanese animation.

“The reason it was done in brown was to give a softer feeling to the screen, it was a technique unused in anime up until that point, and it was done as a challenge, brown is difficult to use as an outline color in animation because it doesn’t contrast as effectively as black” says the movie’s color coordinator Michiya Hoda.

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