The saddest movie I think I ever seen is the brilliant animated film Grave of the Fireflies which broke my heart in a way that no other movie ever has. I had a conversation about that film once with an editor who aptly described it by stating, "That film's not a tearjerker, it's a weeper." I know there are people who will read that and wonder why anyone would want to watch such a film - or read a book that makes you cry for that matter. I would say that when a piece of fiction can move you so profoundly, even to sadness, it's a beautiful thing.
Last night, I watched a film that was very reminiscent of Grave of the Fireflies, but live-action and therefore harsher in many ways. Nobody Knows is a Japanese film from 2005 that I'd wanted to see since I read about it when it came out. I knew though that it was going to a very sad movie, and I have to find a right moment for those kinds of movies. I actually recorded it off of the IFC channel nearly a year ago and the title has stared at me on the DVR list for eleven months. That should give some indication of what I was expecting. I was quite right in my prediction too...it's a weeper.
I would be shocked if the film maker wasn't influenced heavily by Grave of the Fireflies. There's many, many direct references to that movie. They are both stories of children left to fend for themselves. This movie however is set in present day and has another layer of social criticism about selfishness and the ease at which most of us manage to look the other way when we see something that might require us to get involved in something we don't have the time or energy to be bothered with. There is also something hopeful about it, as in Grave of the Fireflies. In both, the children find the beauty in most dire of circumstances.
The film isn't preachy, it's not even direct. The entire movie is essentially a two-and-half hour montage of various slice of life scenes that put the viewer into the world of the characters, forcing you to experience what they do. This is an aspect of Japanese film that I've admired for years. In many ways, it mimics what I try to do with my novels. This movie in particular felt that way. The plot unravels through small everyday scenes that culminate into a powerful whole. It's not gimmicky or sentimental and that's why the emotions it stirs are so moving. I truly believe the only way to make a reader or viewer feel genuine emotion for a character is to force them to be the character's companion.
A lot of people have no patience for this slow and careful process of storytelling. I'm sure there are many people who would turn this movie off, finding it boring...just are there many people who complain that nothing happens in my books. For those people, I feel sorry. That's not to say there isn't a place for super hero action movies or novels with a mystery at the center of it, I love those too. But sometimes we need to demand something richer from art than mere entertainment. Sometimes the work of art is to remind us of our humanity in a world where the most brutal and depressing acts have become teasers for the nightly news.