My readers will know that, as much as I love to exercise some delectable cynicism on this website, experiencing a recent piece of media that I find to be faultless as a creation provides me a much more gratifying writing process. The third season of Bob-Waksberg’s Bojack Horseman is one such creation that has actively compelled me to write.
When writing any of my posts, the hardest part is penning the introductory paragraphs. That is the only uphill aspect when writing my posts. Sitting here in my brother’s flat in London, compelled to share with you all my deepest adoration for this series through my trusty conduit of words, there is a nebulous and vibrant ball of thoughts in the back of my mind, intangible strings of sentences that would go to articulate why I love the series so much, a mesh of potential paragraphs about how Bojack Horseman is, either deliberately or accidentally, feminist (go read this smashing post if that aspect interests you), about how it uses daringly original storytelling methods in its most recent instalment, and how it is so persistently unconventional where its Netlfix Originals peers have seemingly progressed to commodify their respective narratives.
But for this post I will forego all my potential love letters to this series for the purposes of comparison. What Bojack does best, I believe, is express its ideas of reality. And I think that there is only one other animation I have seen that does it so well, an outstanding Ghibli title called Grave Of The Firelflies.
Bojack Horseman’s viewer and critical success has made it a criterion of modern depression comedy. Depression and comedy seem to be inescapably related to one another in principle. Mental health issues are rampant amongst the roster of today’s most decorated comedians, and the concept of the dramedy has its roots in the earliest forms of theatre. To use Miller as an example, Death Of A Salesman demonstrably alleviates the sordid nature of its plot with intermittent spurts of comedy, “How can they whip cheese?” is an iconic line which goes as an example. Beyond comedy being used as a kind of coping method for the audience during somewhat trying emotional investments, these brief moments of comedy also effectively mirror a staple of the human condition. Comedy is escapism, it can be a subversion of a harsh reality, and escapism is most needed during times of emotional entrapment. In trying times it is human to attempt to see the funny side.
This is why Bojack Horseman works as a series. We wouldn’t watch it, probably, if it were more drama than dramedy. This is why we are invested in the character of Bojack himself, he is a guilt-wracked, morally deplorable, fat, a washed up human being. But he’s funny. So we like him. If Bojack wasn’t funny, and the show wasn’t funny, we’d be left with a depressing reflection of the aspirations of the individual gone to waste. No one wants to watch that, because we don’t want to see something that grounded or real. That’s not escapism. That… is kind of what Bojack Horseman is about. Escaping reality.
By having the character Bojack Horseman be a celebrity, this element of public scrutiny works in tandem with the show’s own internal scrutiny of his actual character. The show is an examination of the idea of what it means to be a good person, and what it means to have satisfaction. Bojack is an everyman in the sense that he is hampered constantly by carnal desires: gluttony, substance abuse, hollow sexual encounters, and of course the drinking. But he is also a very particular man with particular demons, most notably ones acquired in childhood.
The show upholds these demons and asks us explicitly during the coda of series 3’s episode It’s You: is it his experiences that dictates who Bojack is? Is he predestined by his demons or does he have the power to be better than he is?
This is… admittedly, a much harder question to answer than you might think. It is easy to say that the show is decidedly positing that we are slaves to our imperfections due to the sheer amount of characters who- despite ostensible overcomings- just don’t change at all. But there is a clear disparity between being something and doing something when it comes to morality. We are shown many glimpses of redemption, particularly with Bojack, and we are forced to ask ourselves if there is an absolute stance to take here.
One thing is for certain, and this is that escaping the reality of yourself and of your characteristic shortcomings is not equal to redeeming yourself. In series 2 when Bojack attempts to rekindle a relationship with an old female acquaintance, Charlotte, in a desperate search for a fresh sense of validation (probably through means of sex) he ends up moving in with her family. He buys a boat next to Charlotte’s house that is aptly named ‘Escape from L.A.’. He spends his time finding himself with the family before attempting to have sex with Charlotte, and then when that fails, he tries her barely legal daughter and is caught in the act by the mother on his boat: ‘Escape from L.A’.
I don’t think there’s a more blatant moment in which the series tells you that redemption is a concept that goes beyond something like a simple relocation. The concepts of escapism and redemption go hand in hand but are distinct here. Redemption is not a futile idea to some of our characters, especially in the case of the marriage of characters Diane and Mr Peanutbutter. The show sometimes brutally suggests that these universally held aspirations of the modern individual: fame and success, are not things used to escape yourself with, but act as pools in which you can choose to drown in, or use to face your own reflection.
The series’ aesthetic is fantastical, but its message is decidedly real: people are animals.
The Reality Of Grave Of The Fireflies
If Bojack Horseman defies the institutions of modern depression comedy or animated dramedy, then Grave Of The Fireflies defied literally fucking everything. It defied its time, its cinematic climate and even the decidedly fantastical thematic institutions of its own company, a then novel Studio Ghibli.
I’m no expert, but I think it’s safe to say that historical accuracy of WWII in cinema was something that didn’t really emerge for a while. Cinema appreciated the sweeping scale of its battles and appreciated the war as a moral crucible but midst all this there lacked a sense of appreciation for the individual, both at home and on the lines.
When we think of the most honest cinematic spectacles of WWII we would probably all think of Saving Private Ryan. The beginning sequence of that movie is regarded as a piece of cinematic iconography, not just for its visceral honesty but for its pioneering regard for the brutal opposition that the individual faced.
That was a decade after Grave Of The Fireflies. Grave Of The Fireflies was, I believe, the first WWII film to expose the difficulties of the young Japanese individuals during wartime Japan with such creative success. It remains just as shockingly visceral as Spielberg’s piece whilst completely omitting any scenes on the front lines. This being only the second WWII film I’ve seen from an Axis perspective, the first being Downfall, there is a palpable sense of guilt here as our innocent protagonists have their livelihoods stripped of them by way of Western carpet bombing.
Grave Of The Fireflies‘s reality is mainly one of Akiyuki Nosaka’s, a real Japanese individual who wrote the semi-autobiographical short story that the animation is based on. Director and creator of the film Takahata can state that the piece does not stand as an anti-war film, but I believe that any individual meaning or identity is lost when it so loyally cultivates the message of the source material. There are several degrees of fictionalisation here, granted: the novelisation of Nosaka’s own life, followed by Takahata’s reworking of this fiction into a screenplay, but its roots are in the real story of the real suffering of two real siblings after the real firebombing of a real wartime Kobe.
This film is a reality. Watching this film is standing witness to a much needed bloodletting of WWII cinema, where the lesser-known tragedies of wartime Japan flood your senses. Poverty, hunger, living condition, diarrhoea, napalm, rashes, hunger, thirst, hunger, loss of family, miscommunication, hunger, hunger, and hunger.
A gut-wrenching tale in its own right, with its tears spilled and blood shed, the cruelty of it all is compounded by the incredibility… the sheer incredibility of the fact that these were more than characters. We do not watch a tale, but rather footage, an excerpt of time itself.
One of these animations explores the reality of an inner, visceral conflict which affects so many of us. The other explores the reality of an external nation-sweeping conflict which claimed the viscera of millions.
Both defy any kind of assumption that animation cannot be used to portray ideas so hard-hitting, so heart-wrenching, and so real.