The early works of Studio Ghibli
Grave of the Fireflies is directed and written by Isao Takahata and stars Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi, Yoshiko Shinohara and Akemi Yamaguchi. It is based on the 1967 short story of the same name by Akiyuki Nosaka.
By 1988, Studio Ghibli was still in its early stages, having released just one film (Castle in the Sky) prior to Grave of the Fireflies. Some may consider 1985's Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind to be a Ghibli film, but that's a topic that would go into considerable length and one I'm not going to waste time mentioning here. Grave of the Fireflies was released in the same year as My Neighbor Totoro, and though both films are nearly complete opposites, they did assure that Studio Ghibli had a bright future ahead. Early on at least, Grave of the Fireflies seemed like a bold endeavor; animation is not exactly the first thing that comes to mind if we're talking about war films. But the fact that Grave of the Fireflies is a war film, and a highly successful at that, we might say that Grave of the Fireflies is something of an achievement in not just anime, but all of animation worldwide, having the guts to address more mature ideas and assure that animation isn't just fluffy kids stuff that needs to be brightly colorful and cheery all the time.
One major question surrounding Grave of the Fireflies is if the film is an anti-war film or not. Director Isao Takahata has denied the film being anti-war, and if the director says no, then it would seem the answer to the question should be a clear, "No." So if Grave of the Fireflies is not supposed to be an anti-war film (certainly, it can't be a pro-war film), then what sort of themes are inherent to the film? According to IMDb, Takahata wanted the film to express the lives of a brother and sister who are isolated from society, with the intention of invoking sympathy in younger people, particularly those in their teens and twenties. So based on this desire from Takahata, it would make sense to view Grave of the Fireflies as a film about survival: a battle that many war-time victims throughout history have had to fight.
The brother and sister that I brought up are the two characters at the heart of Grave of the Fireflies' story. A teenage boy named Seita (Tsutomu Tatsumi/J. Robert Spencer) and his younger sister Setsuko (Ayano Shiraishi/Rhoda Chrosite) are living in Kobe, Japan in the final months of World War II. Their home and most of Kobe are destroyed in a firebombing, and their mother dies from burns. The two move in with a distant aunt (Akemi Yamaguchi/Amy Jones), but tension rises between the two children and their aunt as rations diminish and more refugees come into the home. Seita and Setsuko eventually move out, finding a new home in an abandoned bomb shelter.
- This movie is a mere 89 minutes long, and the plot is pretty short on details. And yet, there is more honest emotion and heartbreaking realism in those 89 minutes than in several two hour war films. It's not just the fact that the movie centers on two young siblings who do everything they can to find food and shelter. It's also that Takahata treats the film with a special sort of tenderness, a kind of tenderness that implies that Grave of the Fireflies has absolutely no interest in chauvinism or in mawkishly declaring that all war is wrong. It's a movie about the survival of pure innocence: Seita and Setsuko are two innocent young children who have no control of when and where firebombings will occur; life for them turns into a matter of survival, survival in a setting where death and destruction are inevitable.
The movie opens with Seita dying of starvation in a train station, so right away, we become aware that not all will end well for Seita and Setsuko. Their journey is like the life of a firefly: their brightness and joy in this messed up world are short-lived. Setsuko asks her brother, "Why must fireflies die so young?" Seita and Setsuko share several happy moments like enjoying a bath together and singing while Seita plays on a piano. These moments are them lighting up their fires. But eventually, food is almost impossible to find and Setsuko falls ill. There's a moment where Setsuko crushes an innocent firefly in her hand the first time she tries to hold one. This moment is a microcosm of Seita and Setsuko trying to survive: they are the innocent fireflies, and the hand is the harsh realities of their war-torn Japan. No kind of patriotic preaching nor graphic pictures of war could create a microcosm that effective.
- It almost seems like sacrilege to try and speak badly of Grave of the Fireflies, and no, I'm not even going to entertain the thought of even trying to write bad things about the movie. The only disappointment comes from me: it didn't hit me right away how powerful this movie is. I had to sit down and take a bit of time to fully process everything that I saw. Of course, I think watching this movie reinforced my belief that some of the best movies out there take time to understand and fully appreciate it. For Grave of the Fireflies, it's a movie you can't just watch on a random Friday night and forget about the following Saturday morning. A film of this magnitude, one that makes you feel practically every emotion imaginable, is a work of animation that ought to immediately come to mind whenever the topic of greatest animated movies comes up.
The only thing I think left to discuss is the question of, "Why make this movie animated as opposed to live-action?" Surely, this movie wouldn't lose all of its emotional heft had it been live-action. What might the answer to that question be, dear reader? I bring back up what I said about how much more emotionally powerful this movie is because of how it centers on two innocent children. That sense of innocence just wouldn't be there had this movie been live-action. Whoever the child actors would be, we would run the risk of having seen them in other movies, a mental barrier that could hinder how effectively we could get invested in their performances in a live-action Grave of the Fireflies. But with animation, Takahata and Studio Ghibli have the power to craft their animated characters and give them expressive looks that can convey the kind of innocence needed for this movie to work so well. And you better believe that's exactly what Takahata and Ghibli do.
Being a movie that takes place during World War II, it would seem that Studio Ghibli was going for a "make it or break it" type of anime film, especially because of how young the studio was back in 1988. But any and all risks involved with making Grave of the Fireflies paid off, assuring that Studio Ghibli was an animation force to be reckoned with in the years to come. Thirty years later, and Grave of the Fireflies remains one of the most beautiful and heart-breaking films to tackle any subject related to war. It's almost shocking to think how short the movie is, and what it is able to achieve in such a short amount of time. Never underestimate the power of Studio Ghibli.
Recommend? Absolutely. This is essential viewing for all animation enthusiasts.
Here you'll find my reviews on just about any film you may have seen. I try to avoid major spoilers as much as possible. I structure my reviews in the following way: