Shelf Life The Life of Budori Gusuko
by Paul Jensen, Gabriella Ekens,
I've been watching Dagashi Kashi 2 this season, and it's been an interesting experience. I don't think I've ever seen such a character-focused comedy sideline its most recognizable protagonist for so many episodes in a row before. I'm not convinced it's a good idea, but it's been fascinating to see how the series rebalances itself around the rest of its cast. And here I thought I was just signing up for a second season of snack-related jokes and trivia. Welcome to Shelf Life.
Jump to this week's review:
The Life of Budori Gusuko
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Shelf Life Reviews
Gabriella's back in the review seat this week with a unique film that takes on some pretty deep ideas. Here's her take on The Life of Budori Gusuko.
Based on a Kenji Miyazawa novel, The Life of Budori Gusuko concerns its titular character – young Budori – as he lives a life in contention with nature. His childhood as a subsistence farmer turns tragic when harsh weather spoils his family's crops for several years in a row. As a result of these events, he's thrust from one life to another, eventually gaining a job as a volcanic researcher at an important facility. While there, he studies ways of altering nature in order to prevent tragedies like those he experienced from happening again in the future. Eventually, Budori's activities lead him into a pact with a figure from the spirit world – the strange and tempestuous presence that's haunted Budori all of his life. Staking his life, Budori makes a choice, and in doing so changes the world that he lives in.
First things first, this film looks very nice. I'll admit that I didn't know what to expect going in—Tezuka Productions hardly makes anything now, and they haven't produced a feature film since 1980. However, I can say that I was pleasantly surprised by what they turned out here. In terms of sheer movement, its production values aren't super luxurious or anything, but the film makes great use of its art design to craft an atmosphere that's equal parts whimsical and haunting. It's a tone unique to Miyazawa (and even then, maybe only in collaboration with Sugii) that I can't compare to anything else, like a combination of the 2003 Kino's Journey with something like The Cat Returns. In other words, it's a children's fantasy film centered around hard emotional truths that somehow manages to avoid being cruel and uninviting. These are the same feelings projected by Night on the Galactic Railroad, and it felt good to find myself in this sort of world again.
The film's use of CG also bears mentioning. While it's quite low-rate even by 2010 standards and contrasts sharply with the traditionally animated segments, I'll admit that I didn't mind it so much. This is largely thanks to the innovative nature of the designs, in a fable-istic art deco style that makes even run-of-the-mill, roughly-composited, steampunk flying machines alright on the eyes. To contrast the real world, the dream world's environments are all done in CG, and even that looks nice due to some clever color work. All in all, the folks behind the film seem to have worked with their limitations in order to churn out an attractive motion picture.
Narratively, The Life of Budori Gusuko's big issue is that it ends so abruptly. The conclusion may not even make sense if you aren't already aware of what the idea of “casting yourself into flames for the sake of others” means to Miyazawa. Having seen Railroad, I was primed for what the film was communicating, but I can see it feeling like an arbitrary endpoint to people who haven't. Otherwise, while the film's themes are wrapped up with that self-sacrificial gesture, it could have used some more denouement afterwards. For example, something to close off the dream world segments, which have their own weird climax in the middle of the film, would have been nice. The film's structure is also somewhat lopsided, mostly at the expense of the third act. They just introduce that volcano plot point too late in the game and fail to thread other key elements throughout its three main narrative “parts.” Honestly, this sort of structural wonkiness might just be a Miyazawa thing – Night on the Galactic Railroad was similarly constructed as a bunch of tangentially related events happening one after another, but that film had a better framing story (its titular railroad tour of the heavens). At this point, I treat his travelogue/life chronicle structure as more of a feature than a bug, advising potential viewers to expect some awkwardness in terms of the three-act structure.
In the end, The Life of Budori Gusuko is a film rooted in values that we don't really see expressed by media anymore. The original story was written in 1932, and its concerns reflect a time when starvation constantly threatened the lives of Japan's rural poor. Here in the United States, our cultural relics from that time come in the form of stuff like The Yearling or The Grapes of Wrath – Depression-era classics from that time when basically everyone in the world was hard-up. Thankfully, conditions are much better now (at least in certain countries), which is probably why this type of story feels like such a relic within modern children's storytelling. However, I still think this film conveys an important message to our modern times. In my opinion, it's important to remember that people really did live this way, totally dependent on the fluctuations of a harsh and imposing natural world, for such a long time. Our current sense of possessing mastery over the natural world is an aberration within the long-held patterns of history, and we don't actually have any idea how long this period will last. But I digress.
I don't think that art concerned with these sorts of issues should be kept far out of reach, even during periods of material prosperity. Besides functioning as a sort of emotional crisis kit, images of that world help us remember and appreciate just how much we have today. And besides the relative stability of living within the developed world, it's not like we've been totally liberated from exterior forces dictating how we live and die. Under these circumstances, Budori's sacrifice continues to have meaning.
Overall, The Life of Budori Gusuko is a lovely little film, and I'm glad that I got the chance to watch it. While it suffered from some narrative problems overall, I'll admit that they bothered me less after-the-fact, when I'd had some time to bask in the film's themes and emotional resolution. In the end, I'd recommend it to fans of the original Night on the Galactic Railroad, which happens to be a film that I'd recommend to basically anyone. The caveat is that you should watch that movie before this one, since that'll better prime you for what it's doing. Otherwise, the only notable extra on the disc is an English dub, which I enjoyed.
Next on the Miyazawa train, I'm hoping for a release of Isao Takahata's Gauche the Cellist, which has been out of print for more than a decade now. This author is commonly adapted by old anime directors, meaning that you get the pleasure of experiencing great literature and great cinema at the same time. It really is killing two birds with one stone – and you should honor the birds killed in this metaphor by watching the films that they died for. It's what Kenji Miyazawa would want, and Gisaburo Sugii, and probably Isao Takahata too.
That wraps things up for this week. Thanks for reading, and remember to send your photos to [email protected] if you'd like to see your anime collection featured in Shelf Obsessed. Come on, bring me some shelves to show off!
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