Grave of the Fireflies is a film whose beauty rises from its tragedy, for it is a prime example of how animation is not a medium strictly for children. 1988 was a rather big year for Japanese animation, as Akira opened the gate for acceptance of a new form to American audiences. But in the exact same year, we were also given two films from Studio Ghibli, My Neighbor Totoro and this. While I don’t particularly consider it to be on the same level ofTotoro the power of Grave of the Fireflies works many wonders – and creates a truly beautiful experience. It’s rare to find an animated film so indulged with beauty to the point, the emotions are so poignant, just as can always be expected from the best of Studio Ghibli’s films.
The story, set during WWII, focuses on a teenage boy, Seita, and his younger sister, Setsuko. They are orphaned from the death of their mother after a bombing, and their father is fighting in the Navy. This leaves Seita with the duty of looking after Setsuko as they struggle for survival. Even though it is animated, there’s an essence to which realism is still grounded into the work that gives it the impact it contains. This film could easily have been done in live action, but Takahata’s detailing to the backgrounds and the setting also makes such a film distinctive amongst many animated films for not only is it simply beautiful, but it also becomes the definitive way to which we can imagine such a story being told, for a live action interpretation may not carry the same emotional core which had been left behind by the animation.
Director Isao Takahata does challenge the interpretation that many critics describe Grave of the Fireflies as an anti-war film, and despite the emotional impact, I actually do agree with Takahata’s sentiments. This does not at all mean I do think the film is bad, but it is something that people tend to overlook in the work, because I never exactly saw that being anti-war as Takahata’s complete intention either. Where the impact of such a film comes from, though, is from how it pictures a tale of survival especially amongst the youth. The knowledge that they are youths is a part of where the impact comes in, because they are susceptible to rebellion. And at that, Grave of the Fireflies not only succeeds in being one of the best tales of survival ever made, but one of the most accurate depictions of the rebellion amidst youth ever to have been placed onto the screen.
It is not a film about war, but the determination especially within the youth at the time. Our main character, Seita, is determined to find a method for survival for himself and his younger sister, despite the carelessness that overcomes him. The opening gives a known outcome, but that helps in making the impact all the more heartbreaking because we sympathize so much with Seita, we want him to make it out alive. He is stubborn, yet never unlikable. It is easy to sympathize because we can see that he very much means well for his sister, especially in a time where we can see adults are consumed with themselves during such a time. The war’s increasing of self-indulgence within the human soul is so thorough in Grave of the Fireflies, and to think that an animated film could detail this process so perfectly adds more to how perfectly it captures realism.
The emotion never comes off as sentimental, but it is purely honest. For an animated feature, Isao Takahata’s emphasis on emotion is beyond extraordinary – it plays off rather simply but the thought comes back and suddenly it becomes even more impactful. Animation traditionally plays with a happy tone yet what we have here is something that breaks away from convention, something full of nothing but honest emotion, especially for the time of its setting. Grave of the Fireflies contrasts the general tradition with animation and instead presents pessimism all throughout even if it carries the nuances of characters that would be familiar for animated films meant for children, creating a harrowing experience that ultimately lets out purity by the final moments, which so perfectly have been set up by the film’s opening sequence (a sequence that contains not only some of the most beautiful animation that I have ever seen, but one of the most shattering pieces of music put to the screen).
In contrast to the cheerful nature of Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro (which was double-billed together in Japan at the time), Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies provides an experience like no other – it is heart-wrenching, gripping, and will also leave an impact on a viewer’s mind. It is a bittersweet, harrowing story of determination, and truly one of the most unforgettable films ever made. Though it may be easy for animation to get to one’s emotions, something like Grave of the Fireflies comes along that would instead go on to show that they can carry the effect of realism that live action would display. Grave of the Fireflies is an emotionally destructive experience that certainly ranks among Studio Ghibli’s very finest.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Toho.
Directed by Isao Takahata
Screenplay by Isao Takahata, from the novel by Akiyuki Nosaka
Produced by Toru Hara
Starring Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi, Yoshiko Shinohara, Akemi Yamaguchi
Release Year: 1988
Running Time: 88 minutes