Saving the World, One Cartoon at a Time

Greg Singer muses on the contribution of the animation community in promoting themes of peace and cooperation, as exemplified in films such as Azur and Asmar, The Iron Giant and the Hiroshima International Animation Festival.

Animation, as a realm of human endeavor, inherently accommodates all perspective and imagination. The art form allows us to articulate our experience through the caricature of an impossible reality, as well as to distill complex ideas through an abstract aesthetic. While artists should not have to shoulder the burden of weighty themes in their work, they also should not feel the need to shy away from them. It often comes as an inspiring and inspired diversion when animators include notions of peace, nonviolence, compassion and other similar idealism in their films.

Azur and Asmar, by Michel Ocelot, shares a vision of tolerance and cooperation among different cultures through the adventurous rivalry of two boys raised as brothers. © 2006 Nord-Ouest Production.

Azur and Asmar, by Michel Ocelot, shares a vision of tolerance and cooperation among different cultures through the adventurous rivalry of two boys raised as brothers. © 2006 Nord-Ouest Production.

The International Animated Film Assocation (ASIFA) recognizes over two dozen animation festivals around the world, with the big ones being held in Annecy, Zagreb, Ottawa and Hiroshima. The biannual festival in Hiroshima, Japan is devoted exclusively to showcasing animated films that promote peace, love, friendship and understanding. Thus the festival's cartoon mascot, Lappy, is a symbol of "happy laughter."

It is a surreal feeling to walk along the streets of a city that, several decades ago, was consumed in a nuclear conflagration. One can scarcely fathom the absolute horror of that blinding moment, when the bomb detonated, time stopped and life melted away. In the museums, we see photographs of the hellish ruins, maimed survivors and ghostly shadows of disintegrated people. In a memorial park in Tokyo, there is a flame from the Hiroshima holocaust that has been kept burning all these years, as an urgent reminder of the need for peace.

Hope endures. Japan today is a thriving blend of tradition and technology, where the past and future are rubbing elbows, if not locking arms. On the bullet train to Hiroshima, one graffiti artwork exhorted simply, "No War." At a bohemian Tex-Mex/African restaurant across the street from the animation festival, on the wall behind the front door is a doodle scrawled by John Lasseter (1990). It is a small world, after all.

A Strong Heart

With every passing year, the world is getting smaller. Some even say the world is flat. That is, the opportunity to participate in the global culture and economy is open to virtually anyone who may want to "plug and play." The threshold is within reach to create and distribute independent works, and it is both humbling and heartening, now, to witness so many animated films being made.

The Man Who Planted Trees, by Frédéric Back, is an allegorical tale about an individual sowing peace in the world, and the hope and happiness reaped by future generations. © 1987 Société Radio-Canada.

The Man Who Planted Trees, by Frédéric Back, is an allegorical tale about an individual sowing peace in the world, and the hope and happiness reaped by future generations. © 1987 Société Radio-Canada.

At last year's Hiroshima festival, a spectrum of peace-themed animation was on display. Eva Goes to Foreign (2005) by Neil Ross is a Flash-animated public service announcement describing the abuse of women in trafficking drugs. Suite For Freedom (2004) by Caroline Leaf, Aleksandra Korejwo and Luc Perez employs animated sand, salt and pastels to tell the story of the Underground Railroad, which led enslaved men and women out of the American South. A Tender Soldier (2006), hand-drawn by Kaoru Maehara, poignantly illustrates how people can be extremely careful in their relationships with other life, while being unsympathetic and vicious toward each other. And, of course, there was the perennial classic by Frédéric Back, The Man Who Planted Trees (1987), about the patient, unassuming efforts of one shepherd who, amidst two world wars, helped to transform a deserted countryside into a vibrant landscape filled with life.

Of special interest at the festival was the feature film Azur and Asmar (2006) by French director Michel Ocelot, which should be premiering in the U.K. and U.S. this winter. Its style of computer animation unfolds like a gorgeous storybook, not only complementing the fairy-tale quality of the film, but also offering a welcome departure from the current trend of 3D cinema. The film trades visual depth and technical achievement for their immersive narrative equivalents. Like Ocelot's earlier feature, Kirikou and the Sorceress (1998) - a folktale touching on compassion, forgiveness and reconciliation - Azur and Asmar also delves into issues of peacemaking. The film centers on the adventurous rivalry of two young men, deftly weaving elements of ethnic and religious tolerance, as well as brotherly coexistence and cooperation, into its tale of Arab/West relations. For anyone who has watched children at play, the film's message echoes clearly. Distinctions based on race, culture and nationality are divisive mental constructions that we only learn later.

A Giant Resolve

Beyond certain independent short films and features, themes of peace also find their way into otherwise mainstream, commercial fare. A favorite example of the spirit of hope, and the prospect of a future based on respect for life, can be seen in the work of Brad Bird. Even in the recently released Ratatouille (2007), there is a scene where Remy and his father are debating the age-old antagonism between humans and rats. Standing beneath the rain-swept window display of a vermin extermination business, Remy argues that the world doesn't have to be this way. His father contends that it's just nature, and one can't change it for the better. Remy counters that change is nature, especially the part we can influence. As Remy walks into the night, his father calls out, "Where are you going?" Remy answers, "With any luck, forward."

This is a common contention even among well-meaning colleagues and family. We are told that ideas of peace are poetic and romantic, but not practical, as though concrete reality is anything other than what we choose to create for ourselves, collectively. As a beautiful and entertaining expression of this truth, The Iron Giant (1999) ranks among the best.

Based on a 1968 children's book, The Iron Man, by English poet laureate Ted Hughes, The Iron Giant is as relevant today as it was when it was first released (coincidentally or intentionally) on August 6, the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. Caught up in the paranoia of the times, with technology presumed to be the salvation or destruction of society, the film is a cogent, endearing reflection on our capacity for choice. We shape our own destiny through awareness, effort and sacrifice.

In an entertaining story that appeals to young and old, The Iron Giant brings home the message that we choose our own destiny. © 1999 Warner Bros.

In an entertaining story that appeals to young and old, The Iron Giant brings home the message that we choose our own destiny. © 1999 Warner Bros.

Like the Giant, we may feel as though we are just now waking from the nightmarish dream of our history. What are our origins? What abilities do we have? How did we arrive here in our present circumstances? Much to the chagrin of certain groups, the film dares to suggest that guns kill, and speculates that souls, which go on forever, are in all living things. The boy protagonist, Hogarth, consoles the Giant by telling him that everything dies. It's okay to die, he says, but it's not okay to kill. Hogarth trusts in his fierce and fearsome friend to use his powers only for good. On more than one occasion, the movie counsels, "You are who you choose to be."

The line separating good from evil runs through every human heart, and there is a struggle, a holy war, in which each of us, and each generation, may choose to fight or acquiesce. Our potential to help and to harm is of equal measure. In the film, the Giant made the difficult and heroic decision not to be a gun, curtailing his defensive reaction to reciprocate the fear, anger and violence visited upon him. The beatnik artist Dean urges the military general to live up to the same ideal: "If you shoot now, the whole thing starts all over again." So the cycle goes, round and round. The Giant becomes the proverbial superman, or Ubermensch, a proper moral being who fulfills his greatest potential. The wisdom and strength to heal - the possibility to repair the brokenness within ourselves and among our relations - is no mean feat. If peacework were easy, if loving our so-called enemies were easy, the world would already be a better place.

Give Peace a Chance

Despite our quarrels and criticisms, within any community we celebrate and mourn as one family. The stage of human events, filled with sound and fury, is small enough that respect and tolerance are no longer luxuries, but necessities. In our interpersonal and international affairs, it is a simple arithmetic: United we stand, divided we fail. What brings us together, and promotes kindness, is good. What separates and demeans us, less so.

At the Hiroshima Peace Park, there is a clock that measures how long it has been since the last nuclear bomb test. It is surprising and sobering how we live so forgetfully on the brink of such madness. May we do everything with our talent, skill and reason to foster peace, and to diminish the use of outrageous, glorified violence in resolving conflict.

Greg Singer is an animation welfare advocate, eating in Los Angeles. Special thanks to the Hiroshima International Animation Festival for their wonderful work.

Tags 
randomness