Movies have long presented the ill effects war has on communities, but animated war movies shatter expectations. They linger between reality and imagination but play on emotional vulnerabilities while maintaining a subtle level of detachment. Here are three animated war movies that have changed the perception of war films, animation and war itself.
Waltz with Bashir (2008)
The film is a documentary that unfolds the repressed memories of its director, Ari Folman, who served in the Israeli Army during the 1982 Lebanon War. Even though Folman does not consider the Lebanese or Palestinian perspective, the film remains a harrowing journey from the anguishes of war to absolute horror.
Israel invaded Lebanon to fight the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and help establish a new order under the Lebanese Christian Phalangists. Folman’s spectacular visual journey builds up to the Sabra and Shatila massacre, which turns into disturbingly real footage. The film almost wrestles with Israel’s culpability.
Following the assassination of Phalangist leader Bashir Gemayel, with then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon claiming there were thousands of terrorists in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, Israeli soldiers sealed off Sabra and Shatila, and Phalangists militiamen entered the camps.
“In the ensuing three-day rampage, the militia, linked to the Maronite Christian Phalange Party, raped, killed and dismembered at least 800 civilians, while Israeli flares illuminated the camps’ narrow and darkened alleyways. Nearly all of the dead were women, children and elderly men,” Seth Anziska wrote at The New York Times. Sources report the casualties as high as three thousand.
Today, Sabra and Shatila are cramped and overcrowded, with scarce electricity and a contaminated water supply. American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA) helps fund organizations that provide pre-school programs, vocational training and psychological assistance to Sabra and Shatila refugees. The prospect of refugees returning to Palestine remains bleak.
Grave of Fireflies (1988)
Originally a short story by Japanese author Akiyuki Nosaka, the film is an animated semi-autobiography about Nosaka’s experience during the firebombing of Kobe and the death of his little sister. The late historian and film critic, Roger Ebert, called the film “one of the greatest war films ever made.”
Over nine thousand tons of U.S. fire-bombs destroyed 31 square miles of Kobe, while the Tokyo air raid destroyed 20 percent of the city in one of the deadliest air raids in history – worse than Nagasaki and almost equal to Hiroshima.
According to historian Masahiko Yamabe, while earlier raids targeted military facilities, the Tokyo fire-bombing purposefully targeted areas with wood and paper homes. These areas usually exceeded 100 thousand people per square mile.
The film depicts the inferno and desecration, but survival and love make it a masterpiece portrayal of family and survivor’s guilt. Nosaka blamed himself for his sister’s death, and the apology is commemorated in the tender moments shared between the characters Seita and his sister, Setsuko.
The destruction and horror that befell these cities aren’t widely discussed in Japan. Yamabe said governments are reluctant to admit it was all the result of an outright refusal to end the war sooner. Other factors include how the atomic bombings eclipsed the attacks and how fast Japan rebuilt.
Hiroshima began rebuilding just hours after it was decimated – a communal effort, aided by volunteers. In March 1946, Kobe began a series of long-term master plans for postwar recovery. Despite the firebombs seemingly fading from memory, many survivors are determined to tell their stories.
Inspired by the director’s mother during the Khmer Rouge regime, Funan is not so much an animated war movie depicting genocidal atrocities as it is about a family struggling to survive and reunite under unimaginable duress and terror.
The Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975 and lasted for four years under the leadership of Pol Pot. The regime sought an entirely new country, one free of money, family ties, religion, education and property. As a result, an estimated two million people died from forced labor, disease, starvation or execution. Doctors, teachers and engineers were executed, and all existing infrastructure was destroyed.
Film critic Peter Debruge parallels Funan to the animated war movie Grave of the Fireflies. Both have an ability to balance emotional intimacy and distance when depicting “unwatchable” tragedy. The process of healing from the genocide only began with the establishment of The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) in 2006. The tribunal is tasked with investigating the Khmer Rouge, but its future is uncertain.
It took nine years for the first case to go to trial, and 12 years and $320 million to convict three men. In 2018, two of these men, Non Chea and Khieu Samphan, were found guilty of genocide over the attempted extermination of the Cham Muslim and Vietnamese minorities – the only genocide conviction against the Khmer Rouge.
Despite the tribunal’s faults and opposition from Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, Cambodians are beginning to overcome their fears and face their wounds. One example is the television show “It’s Not A Dream,” which has reunited more than 50 Cambodian families.
Animated war movies not only depict the destruction of war, but also the human cost. Despite the hardships, humanity has been able to bounce back from war – at least to a point – but no progress is made without communal and international support.
– Emma Uk
Photo: Wikimedia Commons