(This review may not make sense without first reading my review of Ghibli’s version)
In my review of Studio Ghibli’s Hotaro no Haka, I pondered how the movie would have worked if it were made in live action. Having now seen the recent non-animated adaptation of the same novel, I think I was right in my conclusions then – while it is perhaps easier to empathise with live-action actors, there are certain elements that worked better in animation because they were no more or less realistic than everything around them, whereas here there were occasional jolts of unwanted Brechtian V-effekt purely because the special effects weren’t realistic enough to be believed.
But I couldn’t tell you which version of the story is superior, because both have considerable merits. However, I would say that the animation tells the core story with more brevity and simplicity, and it was the live action piece that felt like it was complimentary, rather than the other way around. But who knows? Maybe I’d’ve felt differently if I’d seen this version first. Indeed, if I’d read the novel, perhaps I’d think something else entirely.
While a lot of visual images seem to purposely echo the Ghibli version, this is a very different film. For one thing, the narrative framework and the first half of the 250-minute drama are centred not on young Seita-kun and Secchan, but on the relative who takes them in when they lose their mother, but whose selfishness eventually drives them away. It’s an interesting and daring idea, to tell the tale from the perspective of the least sympathetic character in the piece, and keeping her unsympathetic even though we can understand her motives a little more here, but it works well. We see the aunt’s hardships, trying to feed six children and her brother-in-law, whose physical handicap keeps him from the fighting, but we also see her merciless decision to protect her own and drive out the children who need her. She is more obviously conscious of her failings and her callousness here, and she is given some degree of redemption towards the end, but that does not change her behaviour.
However, the shift of focus towards her makes sense, because the actress who portrays her (Matsushima Nanako from Ringu) gives a brilliant performance, dignified and yet so very hateful; the way she uses silence or simply ignores the beseeching words of her daughter or brother-in-law is chilling, especially when we know that the façade isn’t perfect and have seen her at her most emotional on other occasions.
But this Japanese dorama, which I believe was made for TV, suffers many of the same problems that blight British made-for-TV dramas: one or two superior performances surrounded by a supporting cast who really aren’t up to the same standard (the young actors in particular), a budget that makes directors ambitious but doesn’t get the special effects, cinematography or set construction to the level they need to be (the CG fireflies in particular, despite being one of the most important motifs of the movie, look very poor – resulting in the aforementioned V-effekt), music that knows no restraint and as a result smothers powerful scenes in molten cheese...and an inflated sense of self-importance that here results in not only the excessive running time but also a horribly vulgar montage run under the credits, where shots of Setsuko and Seita are juxtaposed with a lot of children from the Middle East, presumably Iraq and perhaps Afghanistan, with a moralising message reminding us that today, there are still many young war victims like the ones in the story. It’s unnecessary, it’s patronising and it’s inappropriate. The message isn’t wrong, of course, but evening drama shows are not the kind of forum for glib politics.
But this doesn’t change the fact that the deeply sad story is one of the best ever told about war, one of the most tragic and one of the most moving. Even though the men who die in the war are featured in this version (they are absent in the animated version), it is the fact that the film brings home the way that tragedy does not just happen on the battlefields that makes it so potent. While I personally found myself feeling more sorry for the younger-looking Secchan and the Seita-kun driven to worse extremes of petty crime in the Ghibli version, whose acting I never felt to be questionable or excessive, I’m quite sure that there are a lot of people who will find it much easier to feel for real children than drawings. Both media are equally valid, and I can only advocate seeing both.
Would I ever have seen this if not by association with anime, though? Well, no…but that would have been my loss.
(originally written 5.11.06)