Grave of the Fireflies, (Japanese: Hotaru no haka) 1988.
Directed by Isao Takahata.
Featuring the voice talents of J. Robert Spencer, Rhoda Chrosite, Amy Jones and Veronica Taylor.
A tragic film covering a young boy and his little sister’s struggle to survive in Japan during World War II.
Celebrating its 25th anniversary and UK theatrical debut, Studio Ghibli and director Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies is released May 24th. I came to the film having been recommended it for years; it’s a classic war film, a beautiful piece of animation, a great tearjerker. And I can see that it is all of these, though it wasn’t consistently powerful throughout (put that down to the power of hype). Despite this though it’s a terrific, elegiac film, directed and animated with sensitivity and elegant taste.
Based on Akiyuki Nosaka’s semi-autobiographical 1967 novel, we follow teenage boy Seita and his younger sister Setsuko in the final months of World War II during the terrifying firebombing of Kobe and its aftermath, moving in with their aunt and fending for themselves in the countryside. Grave is often described as an anti-war film, a description which is somewhere between incorrect and missing the point. It’s more so a film about survival and simple human kindnesses. Not that it is an ignorant ‘triumph of the will’ picture but rather a melancholic recollection of a child’s attempt to conduct acts of human kindness and protect himself and those he loves, while his younger sibling increasingly proves that she understands peril and fear, but is struggling to maintain hope.
Seita is a slowburner of a character. Always to-and-fro looking out for his sister, keeping her spirits up with a trip to the beach but forever keeping her sheltered from the death surrounding them, it takes a while for him to reveal to us that he’s perhaps more scared than she. His optimism that they can keep moving, keep living, keep on keeping on, is underlined with the unfortunate question of ‘for how long’? Finding food is less and less viable by the day, and there’s no sense that the War will come to a close anytime soon.
The drive he and Setsuko share is centralised around a jar of fruit drops, and each one they eat is all the more bittersweet than the last. The joy in Setsuko’s face is almost too beautiful, her bright anime eyes and gasping mouth are hugely evocative, even for one with a heart of steel. We’re shown life at a breaking point in a remarkably delicate scene of Seita filling the empty sweet jar with water and giving his sister the sugary water to drink. And the sweetness remains enough to bring a smile to her face…
Unlike some of Ghibli’s best known films – the work of Hayao Miyazaki – Grave of the Fireflies is not a fantastical film, but more expressionist. In a fashion akin to more recent films like Persepolis and Waltz with Bashir, it uses animation to bridge realism and expressive flourishes, creating a middle-ground in which neither overpowers the other. In the opening moments a sprite-like Setsuko dances among fireflies and begins the film’s journey with her brother. Minutes later we see hundreds of firebombs explode and set a town ablaze, before witnessing a horrifically-bloodied body take its last breaths. All of these moments are remarkably evocative, beautifully composed and coloured, and the use of sound is impeccable. The aforementioned victim takes their last breaths in a near static shot, and the ambience-free wheezing gives us so much. This is real animation, the use of un-reality to focus reality, to express horror, and fear, and beauty, with real potency.
Grave of the Fireflies has so much to recommend it, and with the opportunity coming to see it on a big, shining screen, I strongly advise taking a look.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★