... aka: Death Lullaby, The
... aka: Lullaby for Sleep of the Death, A
... aka: Lullaby to the Big Sleep
Ugly is the key word here. There's the main character, a young, nameless schoolboy living a lonely existence in Kiryū who is, by conventional standards of beauty, physically ugly. He's taunted daily by his peers for his short stature ("dwarf!") and buck teeth ("protruding tooth deppa!" ["deppa" is a Chinese word for a mope or a dull, spiritless person]), because finding those insecurity scabs and picking at them incessantly is what bullies like to do. The boy is hounded so mercilessly (punched, hit with balls, beaten with a stick, told to die...) that his first inclination when the final school bells rings is to run and find a place to hide where his tormentors can't find him. He's not always lucky. The frequent dehumanization is manifesting itself as another kind of ugly: A constant scowl on the face of a child that has been completely sapped of his joy, curiosity and sense of wonder and imagination. Only a repressed anger and inner rage linger in his eyes, which may one day erupt into violence.
The behavior of the bullies is far uglier because it's an inner ugliness; an emotional and psychological corruption and a lack of soul and empathy. Receiving an affirming, positive emotional response from intentionally making another human being feel terrible about themselves, with zero regard for how your actions may harm or even kill that person, is perhaps the nadir of human ugliness. And these bullies, with their early onset sociopathic bent, will eventually (at least physically speaking) grow up. After they spend their childhood railroading through the weak and vulnerable, then what will their interests be?
Perhaps they'll seek out a profession that enables them some leverage and power over the majority. After all, they'd already spent their youth elevating themselves by knocking others down and THAT made them feel good. For children, words and fists may give them an upper hand but, as adults, nothing speaks louder, gives more leverage or provides more societal advantages, than wealth. If they're in a position of power over the poor, the sick, the weak, the physically and / or emotionally damaged, then they can still resume their bullying, just in more adult, socially acceptable ways. And then, most of society will look upon them favorably because the greatest metric of success in the adult world is money.
Perhaps they can oversee some big project. Maybe that project would even come with non-monetary perks, like the pleasing feeling of nostalgia they get in demolishing through low income areas populated with damaged souls; souls like "Deppa" who've had it beaten into them from a young age that they're inferior and not of much value. The Deppa's of the world, who've had their abilities to get an education, develop a sense of self-worth and make peace with their differences all taken away, now get to have their homes torn down by bulldozers, get toxic fumes pumped into their air and chemicals dumped into their water by the very same people who had a hand in diminishing them in their formative years and now require more money to maintain their "superior" position.
Deppa lives in an impoverished, cramped, ugly part of the working class city. Airplanes constantly fly overhead; so loud that the citizens have to plug their ears as they pass, and they spit out their fumes as they go, which fall like a blanket on the slums. Beaming TV newscasters brag about advancement in the form of a new "superexpress" train system being built through the city that will be the new "Japanese pride." Old buildings must come down so the bulldozers roll in and big steel beams are planted right in between homes for the upcoming track. Textile and silk mills in the area (the chief employers) dump their waste into the water, where scores of dead, smooth-eyed fish float. The skies are always orange and red and hazy and filled with smog. And billboards try to convince everyone to pay their taxes and support whatever next project those at the top are pushing at any given time.
We get flashbacks to the bullied boy's youth, which show how a fall as a toddler messed up his teeth. After the death of both his grandfather (to disease) and his father (a military man who was killed in a war), he and his mother were forced to live in a home with another poor couple. After his mother started suffering from mental problems, she was placed in a hospital (where she will later commit suicide), while "Deppa" was sent to live with distant relatives, who aren't too fond of his presence. His existence is one of social isolation, constant loneliness and ridicule. If the bullies knew any of this, would they stop tormenting him? Would this knowledge make the adults who laugh at and mock him think twice about what they're doing? In both cases, likely not. If you first need to know someone's life history and past traumas in order to treat them with a bare minimum of respect, you're probably already a lost cause.
There's a lot to unpack in this lightning-fast, 27-minute short, which utilizes animation, drawn and photographic stills, live action shots (filmed with 8mm), newsreel footage and surreal imagery. What's most important to note are the overt political themes, how they parallel the bullying story and why they parallel the bullying story. The primary real world reference used here is the construction of the Narita International Airport, which found the Japanese government basically steamrolling over local residents, students protesters and left wing activists until they got their way. Just like that socially acceptable bullying I was talking about earlier, this is yet another example of the little man getting crushed in the name of capitalism and progress by a much more powerful entity. On the other hand, construction of the Narita Shinkansen (bullet train) through the same city (the "superexpress" referenced here), a concern on the director's mind at the time he made this, was successfully stopped by protests in 1983.
The wonderful thing about this multi-layered short is that the bullying and urban development angles perfectly compliment one another and both aspects of the film are affecting. Though you can certainly absorb how the parallel plot threads feed off one another, this also allows viewers to put primary focus on either aspect of the film, as the "secondary" content works well to accentuate whichever area you choose to put your attention on.
This took three years to complete. The director (20 years old at the time) also wrote, produced, photographed, did the animation, character design, sound, Moog synthesizer score and basically everything else! He'd go on to make the controversial and grotesque Midori (1992), which took five years to complete and was also basically a one man show for the talented Harada.
This was given a limited release in Japanese theaters in 1986 and played at film festivals in Belgium, Canada, Germany, Italy and the UK, but was never given any kind of official home video release until 2021. The current Japanese distributor (TACO ché) offers a remastered version with lots of extras, including slideshows of the original drawings, an interview with the director, some of his other short films, a graphic novel and more. This is also available on Youtube with English subtitles.