Written & Directed by Isao Takahata
Arriving at this point in the Studio Ghibli canon, it becomes immediately apparent that Grave of the Fireflies will be unlike any of the previous three films included in this current marathon, and makes a statement that Studio Ghibli is about storytelling in general, and not specifically about “kids” movies. Sure, there are elements of heft found in the plotting of Nausicaa and even Castle in the Sky, but certainly coming off of Totoro, Grave of the Fireflies feels like a completely new direction for the studio. It should be no surprise then that there is a new director in charge of this film for the first time in the canon, with Isao Takahata getting a chance to helm a project instead of the studio staple Hayao Miyazaki. Believe it or not, this is the second time I have seen this film, and it is not the type that I will run to see again, but that is not to say it’s not immensely impactful.
The shift for Ghibli to go from the light and happy Totoro immediately to the heavy and solemn Grave of the Fireflies is startling. The two films were originally exhibited as a double feature I can never imagine attending. Gateway Film Center has at least given me a week between films to readjust my expectations. Grave of the Fireflies follows the lives of two siblings, Seita and his younger sister Setsuko, during World War II. Their home has been destroyed in a fire bombing, sending their mother to the hospital and eventually the grave. With their father off fighting in the Japanese Navy, the duo try staying with an aunt in Tokyo, but when her cold demeanor makes them feel more a nuisance than a blessing, they set off to survive on their own in an abandoned bomb shelter. Grave of the Fireflies excels immensely at being exceedingly real, which becomes both a blessing and a curse for anyone hoping to “enjoy” the film.
Grave of the Fireflies is not a film to “enjoy” unfortunately, but rather one to appreciate and sympathize with. It is a hard pill to swallow, witnessing these young people suffer as they do, but it is in the human compassion of the viewer that the story truly connects. The appreciation of the film comes from the heartbreaking beauty of its animation and the painstaking craft of the filmmakers to deliver a narrative loaded with the history of struggle and the horrors of war. Seeing the war from the perspective of innocent children in the losing country brings further perspective to what really constitutes “horrors of war”. I’m not sure Takahata is really trying to make an anti-war film, but rather captures the lives of these two young people as it was during World War II (as the film is based on a semi-autobiographical book by Akiyuki Nosaka).
The film is not manipulative either. It is upfront and honest with the viewer from the very beginning, as the main character tells us “September 21, 1945… that was the night I died.” This is not a film that ends well, and as such the success of the film weighs heavily on the characters themselves, and the treatment and attention paid to them by Takahata. We spend the entire movie getting to know Seita and Setsuko, and by the end of the film they are our friends, which is a testament to their character, innocence, and determination in the face of their dire situation. They are just kids, people like the rest of us. Although the film may be a “downer” overall, we are treated to moments of joy and happiness throughout, which help brighten their human spirit. Setsuko in particular is a joyful character, simply placed in a situation no child should ever be in.
The decision to make this an animated film is an important one, as the story as is could easily come off as too melodramatic for a live action interpretation of the story. But it is also a curious choice since, at least to my knowledge, the medium had not been utilized quite like this before, to tell such a harrowing story. It distances the viewer from the harsh realities enough to not be “too real” or “too miserable”, but the heft of the film cuts through the animation to still be very real, and very miserable. Grave of the Fireflies is in a class all its own, with no real competition. There are few films as uniquely beautiful, innovative, or stirring as Grave of the Fireflies.