Director: Isao Takahata
Writer: Isao Takahata
Starring: J. Robert Spencer, Corinne Orr, Veronica Taylor, Amy Jones, Shannon Conley, Dan Green, Crispin Freeman
Studio Ghibli’s 1988 classic Grave of the Fireflies is based on Akiyuki Nosaka’s 1967 semi-autobiographical short story of the same name. It’s a dark war tragedy set in the final year of the Second World War and follows two siblings who have lost almost everything while they try to survive. Originally Grave of the Fireflies was released as a double-bill with Ghibili’s much more children friendly My Neighbour Totoro. It’s a pairing that doesn’t make much sense until you finish Grave of the Fireflies and feel the need something much more uplifting.
Grave of the Fireflies starts with the main character, Seita, dying of starvation in a train station. His spirit then rejoins his younger sister, Setsuko, and they go off into the afterlife together. The rest of the film is then a flashback to the final part of the war as the two siblings lose their mother in the firebombing of Kobe. It’s a dark opening, that shows the horrors of war on the civilians still at home. Without their home or mother, and their father fighting in the war, the pair move in with their aunt. At first you naturally assume she’s going to be caring and look after them, but instead she’s horrible towards them. Taking everything they own, denying them food, and even pressuring Seita to sell his mother’s kimonos in order to buy more rice.
All the way through the film you know it all ends in tragedy, you just don’t know how. It is harrowing to watch as Setsuko becomes more frail and weak, and Seita isn’t able to find enough food to feed her. They move out of the aunt’s house, after feeling very unwanted with her constant insults and criticising everything they do. Instead they move into a bomb shelter, where they make a home for themselves. Every time things start to look up for the siblings, the weight of the world comes crashing down on them again. It’s a depressing tale, that doesn’t hold back, and one that is at points hard to watch. It’s made even more impactful by the animation, that is gritty and realistic.
Writer and director has said many times that the film isn’t an anti-war story, but just about children surviving and connecting after the loss of their parents. It’s hard to not see the anti-war sentiment throughout the story, even if it’s not intentional. The loss of food during rationing, the devastating effects of the firebombs, Seita’s outburst of anguish when Japan eventually surrenders, not because they’ve lost but because he realises his father is dead. There’s no glorification of war of soldiers and it does seem to come from a pacifist’s point of view. It does a great job at showing the resilience of people as Seita and Setsuko still finding moments of joy through their toughest times. They play, explore, and laugh together.
Grave of the Fireflies is a sentimental tragedy that hits like an emotional bomb. It wears you down over its ninety-minute runtime, until you like an emotional wreck. Even through it’s darkest moments the story is never nihilistic, and with its spiritual opening there’s a reminder all the way through that there is some kind of happy ending for the pair.
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