This is just a follow up to our meeting with Rosa and our last meeting together where we agreed on focusing on the body of the child, so here are the two examples I researched a bit.
Grave of the Fireflies:
To sum up the film briefly, it’s a Japanese animation film from 1988, adapted from a short story, which shows a sister and brother (about 14 and 5 years old) towards the end of World War II as the US is dropping fire bombs. Their mother dies in one of the raids and they struggle to survive on their own but eventually the little sister starves to death and the young boy dies later. The film is made in a very picturesque watercolour like graphic style despite its grim storyline and it often shows the children, especially the little girl Setsuko, in scenes of play which contribute to the audience’s attachment to the characters.
Interesting changes have been made from the autobiographical experience of the author who wrote the story as an apology to his little sister, feeling responsible for her death. He explains that the character of the young boy, Seita, is much more kind than he was and that in reality the hunger and exhaustion led him to become abusive to her. Despite feeling guily, he often ate her share of food and hit her when she couldn’t stop crying. Even though some viewers still blame Seita for not having done enough in the film version, he is a dedicated care-taker and having him die in the story as well portrays him as a child victim of war, like his little sister.
I found several articles which looked into the question of victimhood which I thought was the most interesting in relation to the children here (Stahl, David C., and Mark Williams. “Victimization and “Response-ability”: Remembering, Representing, and Working Through Trauma in Grave of the Fireflies, ‘Transcending the Victim’s History: Takahata Isao’s Grave of the Fireflies’ by Wendy Goldberg). They analyzed how the (non)involvment of the children in the conflict builds this image of victimhood and relates to the Japanese national narrative of victimhood. It’s interesting to reflect on especially Western audiences’ sympathy to the film and the characters (whose father fights in the army) considering that Japan stills stands as the enemy in that war. Japanese war crimes have not been forgiven and arguably nor has Japan apologised for them satisfactorily, and I found this article amongst others to illustrate this view: http://nation.time.com/2012/12/11/why-japan-is-still-not-sorry-enough/.
There are lots of questions to investigate here: are the two children portrayed as ‘pure’ victims on the same level in the film ? Does Seita’s agency (in contrast to Setsuko) and the fact that he sides clearly in the war (by defending his father) make a difference ? In other words, is Seita purely innocent ? How does their age and the childish behaviour relate to the audience’s empathy towards them and balance out with how Japan’s actions during World War II were/ are perceived ?
Henry Darger‘s work
The self-taught recluse Henry Darger has boomed to fame in the 90s and 2000’s after his work was found by his landlord after his death as they came to clean out the room. Since then he has been called a major figure of outsider art and is exhibited in prestigious museums in the US and Europe; the American Folk Art museum has even opened a Darger section and he was the subject of a documentary in 2004.
The giant amount of work that he produced however is highly controversial and has raised concerns about Darger’s mental health and the innocence of his depiction of children. What Darger named ‘The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion’ narrates the struggle of seven little girls mostly against adults who capture and torture them in bleak visual scenes. These children are the image of purity: white Christian little girls with angelic faces copied straight out of picture books. This article from the Huffington Post sums up pretty well the controversy around the artist and his sucess http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/29/henry-darger_n_6565294.html. The question of purity is what troubles the viewer :
‘Upon first glance, Darger’s artwork appears whimsical, virtuous, even sweet, with cartoonish young girls sprinkled across pastel-tinted landscapes populated by butterflies, flowers and puffy clouds. Yet it’s this very bounty of innocence and sentimentality that makes the twisted works all the more horrific. The graphic details of Darger’s writing are explicated without reservation — all the torture and pain laid bare on the page — to make it all worse, in candied colors. To add an additional layer of strangeness, Darger often depicts his little girls naked, and often with penises’
The suspicions around Darger’s obsessive copying and drawing of little girls’ bodies (with boy’s genitals) did not prevent his popularity in contemporary art circles and we can question how it has perhaps participated in it. In any case the reception of his works and its showcasing in important institutions internationally as a ‘postmodernist’ and somehow avant-garde belonging to the tradition of Art brut makes me wonder : are mental illness and disturbing images being capitalized as a trend in contemporary art ?