Battle Lines Drawn: How Animation Depicts Real World Conflicts
The prevalence of war and conflict in the modern world is reflected in the cinema of practically every country. From historical accounts of ancient battles to depictions of current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, war has been and will continue to be a staple topic for cinema around the world. Within animation, though, there haven’t been a great many films that focus themselves on real-life events; rather, it has embraced the sci-fi genre that can discuss real conflicts allegorically rather than directly. However, when animated films have directly portrayed war, they have often proved that the medium is at least as capable, if not more so, at doing it as live-action cinema.
The magic in the best examples of animated filmmaking comes from the marriage of fantasy and emotional reality. The current kings of animation, Pixar and Studio Ghibli, maintain their success by grounding their films with simple, human emotion at the heart. When combined with the subject of war, animation can be especially effective because it taps into the emotional human reality as well as the abstract imagination. Through this, both the real world and imagined world are immersed in the conflict, and therefore, a more powerful message can be created that extends beyond the simple reality of a particular conflict between nations.
In the last fifteen years, three animated films in particular have stood out as being not only examples of the best animated films about war, but the best that world cinema, in general, has to offer on the subject. These would be the Studio Ghibli classic Grave Of The Fireflies, Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir, and the graphic-novel adaptation Persepolis. All three managed to carry a human, emotional story while using the unique advantages that animation brings to filmmaking in terms of imaginative expression and artistry.
Grave Of The Fireflies (1988)
Grave Of The Fireflies is set in World War II era Japan and tells the story of two orphaned children and their struggle to live through the end of the war. The film’s genius is in its unrelenting grim reality and the way that this juxtaposes with the traditional ways in which animation as a medium has been used, including by Studio Ghibli themselves. The most powerful subversion of the audience’s expectation of animated cinema comes with the openness to accept the mortality of children. The slow deaths from malnutrition of Seita and Setsuko are all the more affecting because they go against the images of fantasy and immortality in children that is most often seen in animated films.
Another advantage that animation has in war-themed storytelling is in its nature of having to bring its characters to life from the base form of a two dimensional drawing. While live-action films can sometimes neglect the emotional, human core of a story; in animation, this is even more crucial because it is much more prominent in bringing the film to life. This challenge is most likely why there are so few animated films that directly broach the subject of war, but, when done successfully, it can arguably bring more to the genre than any live-action film can. The characters of Grave Of The Fireflies are brought to life and then die all on screen within the film. Unlike an actor portraying a character, there is no illusion to be seen, though. The character’s existence is purely within the confines of the film, and this makes the human connection far more rewarding for the audience.
Waltz With Bashir (2008)
Some different merits of animation in this genre can be seen in Waltz With Bashir and its vision of the 1982 Lebanon War. It merges animation with documentary, showcasing the power of animation to blur reality and imagination, and, therefore, capture the heightened emotional state that conflicts create. The film explores the psychology of war as it depicts director Ari Folman’s search to revive his memories from the period when he served as an infantry soldier in the Israel Defence Forces at the age of 19. Folman’s decision to use animation to make a documentary is inspired in that it is demonstrably the perfect medium to tell his story. The combination of sometimes surreal and imaginative scenes with the interviews given by real soldiers gives an essence of the psychological effects of war. The dreamlike nature of some of the animation serves to reflect the mental trauma that can be caused by war, and the juxtaposition with the real accounts from soldiers brings this home powerfully.
Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (adapted from her own graphic novel of the same name) is a different prospect to that of Grave Of The Fireflies and Waltz With Bashir, as its focus is on the coming of age tale of a girl growing up in conflict, with slightly less attention placed on the war itself. The setting is the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and the key to the effectiveness of the animation is the choice to have the scenes set during the revolution depicted in black-and-white. This effect builds on the fact that animation is a fantastic tool to relate specific, cultural events to everyone. It is traditionally a race-less, class-less medium, and by furthering this with the black-and-white cinematography, the human story can be seen as relevant to everyone. In fact, in a commentary track on the DVD of Persepolis, Marjane herself comments that the use of black-and-white was to dissuade people from seeing it as an account from a foreign land and see how easily a country could become like Iran.
The nature of animation as a medium that is absent from class divide is one that makes it a perfect choice for this genre of filmmaking. Disney’s propaganda shorts of the ‘40s demonstrated this with almost disturbingly powerful films, such as the Donald Duck’s Der Fuehrer’s Face and Commando Duck. Thankfully, recent films have evolved to use animation for more balanced, human stories set in times of conflict, ultimately opening the eyes of western audiences to the realities and relatable tragedies that result from the turbulent situations in a number of countries today.
Still growing as a medium, animation has become and will to continue to prove to be a perfectly valid choice for depicting stories in any number of genres. For filmmakers telling a story of war or set during a conflict, animation becomes an excellent choice as it allows for a balance between gritty reality as well as the freedom for more personal, imaginative expression. It has evolved from crude propaganda to evocative tales of the psychological effects of war, building on its innate qualities as filmmakers have realised the potential in the form. Hopefully, audiences will see films such As Grave Of The Fireflies, Waltz With Bashir and Persepolis and the medium will continue to be accepted as a valid and perhaps even preferable form to tell the harsh, emotive tales of war, opening a window to other cultures for western cinema audiences.
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