(Japan 1962 37 min)
Directors Yusaku Sakamoto, Eiichi Yamamoto; Writer Osamu Tezuka; Producer Osamu Tezuka; Animator Gisaburo Sugii
by Stephen Russell-Gebbett
Given that animation is the creation of the illusion of movement or life from ‘inanimate’ material, is it any wonder that so many animated films are about objects coming to life? Sometimes sculptures, sometimes paintings or toys. In Story of a Street Corner it is posters on a wall.
Osamu Tezuka has a ball breathing his spirit into their simple yet timelessly stylish designs. In one advert a man splashes water onto his face only to wash it clean off . In another a classic Toulouse Lautrec scene turns raucous. It is all ever so charming, not least the budding romance between a violinist and a pretty pianist that passes ghostlike through the prisons of their paper frames.
Above street level another story is unfolding. A young girl has dropped her blue toy bear out of her bedroom window and it lays out of reach in the gutter. Every night she looks down mournfully and throws down a piece of cheese for it to eat, a piece of cheese which is surreptitiously spirited away by a mouse that lives nearby.
In this tale the bear is the only thing that is not alive. Even the tree on the street corner strains its boughs to scatter its seeds. Then suddenly, the mood changes. The naive delicacy that tiptoed across the cobbles turns sour. A soldier appears (we see only his boots) and row upon row of propaganda posters are pasted over the wall. Soon the bombs will fall. Soon a place that was filled with life overflowing is reduced to rubble, to dust. The violinist and the pianist peel and float free, dancing together on the wind, finally catching fire together amidst the smoke.
The end of this forty minute film sees the girl reunited with her bear. Her house has fallen down and her town is a ruin. This sombre coda recalls Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero, in which a young boy struggles to survive in the ruins of Berlin. So much of Japanese animation, even now, addresses war or, more specifically, the atomic bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It has clearly left an indelible scar on the national psyche.
Tezuka manages to illustrate the sense of everything turning to nothing. Everything living and then…
He doesn’t dwell for dramatic effect on the destructive visceral impact of the war that we see in Barefoot Gen (a manga adapted into film) for example nor wallow in the sentimentality of suffering that occasionally afflicted Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies.
Is it not best for a film about the horrors of war to show it as it is – something you cannot negotiate with, something that has little hope to it? These works need to shock us for we are more desensitised by sensitivity and soft-soaping than by the cutting and the plain-speaking. Whether by humour or provocation or what we would jump to call bad taste we need to feel that frisson of terror, that thing that makes us aware of ourselves and what we are capable of doing and feeling – for good or ill. There are two final images after the girl picks up her bear and walks through ruins. First, a fresh bud breaks through the surface. Second, a jump forward as the devastation spreads to the buildings in the distance.
Osamu Tezuka is considered the father of modern anime. His work is still being adapted and referenced now, over twenty years after his death (in 2001 his manga Metropolis was made into an impressive film by Rintaro). He has made many many good films, short and long, from creating and writing Kimba the White Lion (1965-1966) to animating the elating Jumping (1984). He will be best remembered as the creator of the iconic Astro Boy. It is easy to see why he is so revered. Playful and intelligent, he matches style to substance.