In his review of the 2016 animation In this Corner of the World, Mark Kermode reflected on the power of anime to ‘talk about very big, adult issues with a innocence and simplicity that a live action film would not be able to handle’. The movie follows a young, newly married woman named Suzu in the months and years leading up to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Beginning innocuously with her shy, awkward, marriage to a man she barely knows, as Suzu grapples clumsily with her newly married life viewers are lured into a false sense of security concerning the horrors that will shortly unfold.
What follows is a deeply harrowing story of loss, devastation and the nauseating brutality of war. The truly disturbing nature of some of the images we are shown – a little girl clinging to the rotting corpse of her mother, the charred body of a dying man, the brutal death of a small child – are somehow rendered more bearable by their animated nature. Animation holds the power to explore the darker aspects of human history in a way that would simply be too horrific in a live action format. But while films like In this Corner of the World directly depict events from history, themes of war also run in a more subtler manner in many Japanese animated media.
Released in 2004, Howl’s Moving Castle is not only one of animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli’s most beloved films, but also an example of what Takashi Murakami calls ‘superflat’. This term describes allusions to the trauma of the second world war visible within Japanese popular media. While on its surface a whimsical, fantastical love story between a cursed young woman and a handsome, self-centred wizard, the darker backdrop of war that permeates the movie holds a deeper, more complex significance.
War is intertwined throughout Howl’s Moving Castle, and forms much of the inner conflict of the movie’s titular wizard. Originally running from his wizardly duties to fight in the war on behalf of his king, his growing love for Sophie ultimately gives Howl something to fight for. However, this desire to protect her, and the ravages of war that he exposes himself to for the sake of this, both figuratively and literally breaks down his humanity. Transforming into a large bird to fight, Howl’s bird-like appearance steadily becomes more grotesque as the movie goes on, before he almost loses the ability to change back altogether.
In this sense, Howl’s story could be seen to echo the experience of many a young man sent out to fight for their country during the second world war. Young men who set out to protect their loved ones and their country, only to be consumed by the horror and futility of war. Unlike In This Corner of the World, Howl’s Moving Castle ends happily with the war coming to a close and Sophie successfully saving Howl from himself. But both movies demonstrate the power of anime to depict the horrors of war in a poignant manner that is easier for viewers to cope with.
If you would like to find out more about superflat and the presence of war in Japanese media, I highly recommend reading Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture, which I have included the details of below.
Murakami, Takashi (2005). Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture. Yale University Press.