The artist of this French comic gives a good interview here, talking about the Twilight Zone / "cruel fairy tale" nature of the story and how the comic form allows you to represent sped-up time better than films (which require naturalism-undermining CGI) or prose (where the pacing is slower). Should be said that the artistic challenge of drawing rapidly-ageing bodies is met pretty well, although I didn't always like the cartoony artwork, which over-emphasised facial features in order to make the characters clearly distinguishable.

The interview didn't touch on the rather interesting cold open the story has: an aerial shot of the costal landscape, plunging deep into the sea water, through an underwater cave and up to reveal a placid shore. In a way quite cinematic, in that it's very much about the movement of "the camera". But if it's true that CGI is an imposition on live-action, then the effect would be (slightly) different if it was on film. I suspect CGI may be good (and ubiquitous) enough for audiences to not experience it as an imposition if it appeared in an otherwise quite naturalistic setting. But if I'm wrong, comics still do have a niche to fill in this area.

More interesting than that is the symbolism which accompanies the introduction to the geography of the story, particularly the underwater cave section where the reader undergoes a kind of birth: through the watery hole and up for air, the path of life stretching away on the shore. This is followed by a sequence in which a mysterious man on the cliffs notices a woman on the beach taking off her clothes and jumping into the sea: a kind of sexual awakening metaphor. He walks away, but the final sequence is of him turning back to see her floating on the seawater, and then looking down in resignation. Later we learn that the woman is dead. So we go through a kind of birth-life-death cycle right at the beginning of the story. The silence of the images also establishes the right eerie tone, setting up a nice contrast with the buzzing activity of the arriving holiday-makers who are thrown into this creepy setting and situation.

The mystery is never explained, although a science fiction author advances a couple of theories. It's a fable – something underlined by the bedtime story told at the end about a king who builds a fortress against death which only serves to cut him off from his family. A link is drawn with the obsessive sandcastle-building the doctor succumbs to. He forgets wife and children in the pursuit of transient and ephemeral life projects. However, some projects are more ephemeral than others. The bedtime story includes the king looking over to a distant mountain and realising that he has never touched a snowflake. Similarly, one of the children regrets that he did not try to escape by climbing the cliffs when he was younger and healthier. I think the creators are trying to valorise projects which seek an understanding of and settlement with the natural world. But this is motivated by the same impulses as the need to build castles of sand (those unphilosophical castles in the air castigated by the Scottish Enlightenment), a body of knowledge not secured to and tested by the experience of nature. The final scene is of the surviving member of the group tapping out the beginnings of another sandcastle – obviously not learning the mistakes of his forebears.


Grave of the Fireflies

I had been forewarned that this was not only a brilliant WW2 film but a guaranteed tear-jerker, so I watched it with a guarded attitude, not wanting to give in to whatever emotional manipulation was in store. I'm quite glad I did, because while the film does not manipulate you and I was locked out of sharing the intense impact it has on others, another aspect does open up when you approach it in this way.

The firefly metaphor can't help but encourage readings of the film as a critique of the senseless destruction of war. The fireflies represent the people caught up in the war, and more broadly of the brief lives we all lead, and the fate we all share. In one scene, they remind the protagonist of watching a naval parade, and all the proud, patriotic and violent feelings the spectacle stirred within him. He sits up shooting an imaginary machine gun at the air, but the night is peaceful, underlining the embarrassing nature of the outburst.

But there is more buried under this rather unsubtle metaphor. For one, the director has made explicitly clear that the film does not contain a pacifist message. Instead, he draws attention to how the brother and sister fail to survive because of their decision to isolate themselves from kith and kin. This is a difficult perspective to get because we are so invested in Seita and Setsuko's story and their aunt really is mean and conniving. Nonetheless, it is inescapably true that their decision to live apart and alone dooms them both in the end. Independence and individualism is seductive but dangerous. When the film mourns the death of Setsuko, we don't look back to her life before the film starts. We only get images of her playing in the cave – when she was most free, but also when she was most vulnerable.

The end of the film shows the ghosts of Seita and Setsuko looking over a city, an effect Scorsese pinched for his Gangs of New York. Japan's current prosperity is built over the suffering of the generation that experienced the war, and Isao Takanaka may have intended the shot to be a pointed reminder of that fact. If so, the siblings emerge as more noble than the decadent present generation, but they have also made the same mistake – succumbing to a very modern individualist ideal and rejecting the ties that bind a community together.


Ghost World

The most recent convocation of the Islington Comics Forum (a local institution where I now get my words + pictures from) had this on the agenda, and there was just too little time to dig into one of the central questions posed by the book, which is why in the seven hells is it called Ghost World? The phrase is graffitied everywhere around the unnamed town the characters inhabit, and one semi-official explanation is that it refers to "the fact that the town's individuality is being encroached upon by franchises that are seen everywhere". But what about that sequence at the very end of the book, when Enid comes across the mysterious artist responsible for the graffiti? What's THAT about?

Earlier in the book, Enid is excited about meeting "David Clowes" – a stand in for the author of her comic – at a signing. The guy turns out to be a creep, and Clowes may be aiming this episode at writers unselfconciously creating their very own fantasy girlfriends in their work. Clowes is not doing that, and I learn just now that Enid Coleslaw is actually an anagram for Daniel Clowes, which further underlines his determination to keep his protagonist very close, not letting any 'other-ing' distort his account.

That piece of meta prepares us for Enid's second encounter with a manifestation of her author. Because that is who I believe the guy with the paint can and brush leaving all those "Ghost World"s is. Clowes is literally branding his creation, imposing a unifying metaphor over it. But as his central character approaches for answers, he literally runs away from providing any. In that scene, he divests himself of the responsibility of giving a moral to his tale, or a direction for Enid. The book ends on the exactly the opposite of a deus ex machina – God isn't revealed in the machine, He leaves it.


The Seventh Seal

Bergman says the knight and squire in the film manifest two attitudes to faith that wrestled within him at the time of making – a remnant of naïve piety and his adult cold rationality. He allows these two to lay out their stalls without conflict, they mostly stay out of each others way. The squire's (very Shakespearian) skepticism is immediate and winning, although the horrors of the medieval world make Gunnar Björnstrand rather bitter: he's more Jaques than Touchstone. Max Von Sydow gives a very intense performance, eyes always trying to pierce the inner significance of things. God's silence is not so much a source of desolation as of frustration. WHY doesn't he answer? And more importantly, if he doesn't exist WHY are we constantly plagued with the idea of his perfection? At the end, his squire says he could have offered his master medicine that would have quenched this thirst. We can live content without the dissatisfaction of forever being separated from the divine, although the knight does not have the opportunity to learn how to do this. Death (or the plague) claims them all.

Well, almost all. The existential musings of the knight and squire is contrasted with what Bergman describes as the holy within humanity, portrayed by a "holy family" of itinerant actors. The father even expresses the hope of his young son being able to work miracles, although only for entertainment purposes. Their act aims to distract and amuse an audience in a village, but their efforts are quashed when a procession of self-flagellating divines interrupt proceedings and whip up the crowd with visions of impending apocalypse. Bergman says the mural-painter in the church is a stand-in for his own attitude to art, in that you make what you are paid for. But the character also talks about how the image of death is far more potent and captivating that that of a bawd. In the middle of the film, the "holy family"supply an alternative sacrament to the company – wild strawberries and milk – much sweeter than the Christian fare. It offers a moment of peace for the knight, but he is drawn back to his game with Death. Distraction for him is momentary, the struggle for answers continues unabated.


Distant Voices, Still Lives

Character and plot are largely dispensed with in this film. What you get instead is the evocation of a time and place through images and songs. I'm amazed it was ever made – a film built entirely on the film-maker's personal memories of growing up in Liverpool in the 1940s and 50s. And they are very obviously memories. Many shots are composed like photographs, the family sitting still waiting for the shutter. The camera moves only very slowly and determinedly, sometimes literally shifting the audience from one scene to the next. One great example is the pan down the street into darkness that arrives at the family praying at an indoor shrine surrounded by candles. Immersion is resisted at every point. We drift through the world the film sets before us, but we are never part of it.

Pete Postlethwaite's violence is introduced early. Terrence Davies knows to put the most shocking scene at the beginning so we know exactly what's going on and how bad it is. But explanation or insight is avoided: what does a child understand of the roots of evil? This is a time when such behaviour remained unquestioned and accepted as part of the fabric of reality. Revolt and rebuke, when it arrives at the end of the film, is quickly shut down (although the daughter's forwardness contrasts with the mother's silence, and is a sign of things to come).

Although dissent is repressed, the community finds its voice in song. The film is full of them. People sing at weddings or when the bombs are falling, happy or sad or bored. At the end of the film we see the crowd of unbrellas outside a cinema, and the crowded screening inside. In another scene, someone shouts for a record to be put on to cheer everyone up. One of the themes of the film seems to be the cultural revolution brought about by the recording of sound and moving image. One scene that particularly struck me is the babysitter waiting outside an open door to be invited in – she starts singing to herself, and ends up doing a little dance in the doorway. What would I do in her situation now? Probably twiddle with my MP3 player whilst flicking through twitter. Boredom having been comprehensively annihilated, we've almost forgotten what it was like when you had to make your own fun. This film serves as a museum exhibit for a lost culture before recording and storing entertainment was possible.

Why Distant Voices, Still Lives? The film is composed of two sections shot two years apart. And while inter-titles come up to introduce the first as Distant Voices and the second as Still Lives, the film appears to me to be a unified whole: voices and stills – songs and images – from (a personal) history recreated and frozen in amber. The distance is that of memory, in which human lives are preserved unchanging. Davies is using the instruments that destroyed the customs and community of his youth to document it, and I suspect the title is drawing attention to this central irony.