Creator: Isao Takahata
Length: 89 minutes
Note: Keep a box of tissues handy.
This the first line of Isao Takahata’s film Grave of the Fireflies, based on a semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by Akiyuki Nosaka. These words are spoken by a young boy named Seita as he watches his body succumb to starvation alone in a train station. Soon reunited with his baby sister, Setsuko, the two of them look back on the final months of their lives, starting with the destruction of their home city of Kobe by American firebombing raids. Their mother is killed from burns sustained by the bombs and, with their father away at sea with the Imperial Navy, they go to live with an aunt. The aunt turns out to be cruel, and Seita and Setsuko soon tire of her poor treatment. They decide to strike out and live on their own, moving into an empty bomb shelter. But, as you would have guessed due to the beginning, things don’t go so well.
So basically, it’s a really happy movie.
Grave of the Fireflies is sometimes described as a war movie, but it is not about war itself. Rather, the film very graphically addresses the consequences of war upon individuals and society. This is not the sort of animated film you want to show kids. It pulls no punches and makes no attempt to disguise what it is: a tale about two young children who needlessly die due to an uncaring society suffering through war. Yet, the film possesses moments of joy and beauty; despite (or perhaps because of) the utter hell that Seita and Setsuko suffer through, they are still painted in the same beautiful and innocent manner that kids are portrayed in all of Ghibli’s films. Despite everything they live through, they never cease being what they are at heart: children full of grace. These moments only serve to make the horror on display in the rest of the film that more awful.
The film possesses Studio Ghibli’s trademark gorgeous animation, which illuminates both beautiful things (Seita and Setsuko catching fireflies) and horrible things (unrecognizable, blackened bodies in the ruins of the burned city of Kobe). Studio Ghibli’s animators have crafted many scenes of wonder and magic for film goers over the decades, but this is the only time they have crafted such scenes of destruction and death. This creates an often unsettling juxtaposition between the beauty and innocence of the children and the utter horror that they have to live through.
Even though the film showcases the ruins of war (both the physical and the societal), not all the tragic events can be traced directly to the bombs and the fires. Isao Takahata actually intended the film not to be a criticism of war but rather to be a sort of scolding of Japanese youth at the time, who he perceived as leading failed lives. He intended Seita to represent the young leading wasted lives because of their rejection of their society and their elders, who lived through the events the film so graphically illustrates. What he wanted people to take away from the film was the fact that had Seita and Setsuko stayed with their aunt, however cruel she may have been, they would not have died. Whether or not you agree with Takahata’s assessment of the state of Japanese youth, it is undeniable that it is in large part because of Seita’s stubborn pride that both he and his sister perish.
Bizarrely, Grave of the Fireflies was originally released as a double feature with Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro, one of the happiest and most whimsical films ever created. I imagine the mood whiplash between those two works could easily kill the unprepared. Still, both are extremely poignant and touching in their own unique ways. Grave of the Fireflies just happens to achieve that meaning by showing the trials and ordeals and eventual death of two young children. It is touching and beautiful and extremely sad, and it is a masterpiece of Japanese cinema. Just don’t expect a happy ending.