Brave Story, ブレイブ・ストーリ or Bureibu Stōrī (2006)
Brave Story, ブレイブ・ストーリ or Bureibu Stori began life as a novel written by Miyuki Miyabe with a transition into manga and then this full-length anime version produced by Gonzo, directed by Koichi Chigira. For the record, the film was nominated for “Animation of the Year” at the 2007 Japanese Academy Awards.
The best way to start thinking about this film is to consider what gives any work of art “universality”. It’s too easy to say anything that achieves consistency throughout time and in differing contexts is merely the opposite of relativism where meanings and interpretations might change. Why? Because when it comes to any work of art, how any viewer sees and interprets a work may differ significantly depending on their cultural background. The fact that A might like something because it reminds him of entirely human, moral values does not prevent B from liking it because it reminds her of Christian doctrine. Both may be equally valid interpretations.
So here’s a story about means and ends. To illustrate the choices we can make, we’ll start off with two boys. Both come from fresh tragedies. Wataru Mitsuya finds his life changed when his father leaves to live with another woman and his mother attempts suicide. Mitsuru loses not only his parents, but also a younger sister. They meet in the human world. A tentative bond is formed. Both then set off on a magical quest in a world called Vision, collecting magical gemstones to embed in the hilt of a sword or head of a staff respectively. They are motivated by the promise that the one who “wins” will be entitled to ask the Goddess of Destiny for one wish. That could change the events in the real world and restore one family. How will their approach differ?
Wataru enters this new world as an innocent, prepared to reach out and trust those around him. He’s not much interested in any power he may have. Indeed, instead of steady progress from step to the next, he rather stumbles or blunders from one crisis to the next. Fortunately, he has just enough wisdom or courage to survive each trial. He makes loyal friends, being deputised as a Northern enforcement officer and inspiring at least one young girl to fall for him. Mitsuru embraces the reality of his magical powers from the outset. There’s to be no holding back in his pursuit of the gemstones. His desire to recover the life of his younger sister means lives in Vision can be sacrificed. Indeed, he’s more than willing to destroy the entire world of Vision if that’s the price to be paid for realising his wish.
In one sense, we could dismiss this as being a rather trivial dungeons and dragons type of scenario. A quest to collect tokens with the winner to be granted a wish. Yet the execution achieves a kind of universality that makes it one of the most pleasing of stories of the last decade. Worse, it’s at this point that we have to begin talking about the symbols being used and the themes explored. As cultural anthropologists, we remind ourselves this is a Japanese story and therefore drawing from Shinto and Buddhism. Since the story is very much about life, this places us in the Shinto side of the equation and into the rites of purification. Before anyone can progress to a higher level, he or she must remove the “bad” side of their character. This would include all the fears, selfishness, anger and so on. This is, of course, parallelled in Christianity where the individual must accept the “bad” or sinful traits and heal the spirit. In Biblical terms, we should recall that Jesus accepts the sins of the world and forgives everyone. He also resists temptation, seeing through the devil’s tricks and holds true to His beliefs. That’s why His sacrifice saves this world. As an aside, not wholly irrelevant, I noticed the images of a cross prominent in the end sequences of Brave Story but, in Japanese anime, that has nothing to do with the Christian concepts.
From my own view as an atheist, this is a story about personal growth. Wataru starts off as focussed on his personal needs but, as he comes to understand the world in which he finds himself, he realises his moral code forbids the sacrifice of the world as the price of saving one person — he’s increasingly Utilitarian. No matter how dear a dying parent may be, the greater good is served by saving the world and all its people. To reach this new plateau of morality, he must confront the essential selfishness inside himself that would willingly condemn others. We can call this the Kantian triumph of a universal law that we should do no “evil”. Once he recognises the need to resolve the moral conflict, he reaches peace within himself and can move forward. The second boy, Mitsuru, embraces the amoral universal that the means always justify the end. He fails because he cannot reconcile the moral and amoral sides of his character. In a sense, the two sides of his character fight each other and both lose.
The cast of characters in Vision is impressive with the water-loving Kee-Keema, the feline Meena who is redeemed from sin by her love for Wataru, and the Northern Highlanders whose pursuit of justice and order make them natural allies for Wataru. For those who just want to see this as an engaging adventure story with everything from dragons to demons, there’s plenty to enjoy. At a higher level, this attempts to be profound. I’m not prepared to say it achieves universality or even a completely satisfying level of discussion of the moral issues. But, when you think about it, that’s hardly surprising. Anime is the last place you would expect to find hard-core philosophy. So, no matter how you approach this, you’re going to find it enjoyable and, in its quieter moments, thought-provoking. Who could ask for any better combination.