In the final months of World War II American planes began a bombing campaign across the mainland of Japan. Incendiary bombs were dropped on over 60 cities and estimates are as high as 500,000 civilian deaths. This provides the setting for the powerful 1988 animated war drama “Grave of the Fireflies”, a movie I shamefully hadn’t seen until recently.
The film comes from the acclaimed Japanese animation team Studio Ghibli. It was written and directed by one of the studio’s founders Isao Takahata and based on a Akiyuki Nosaka autobiographical short story. Numerous offers were made to Nosaka to adapt his story to a live-action movie, but he felt none could do justice to the deeply personal story. Takahata approached Nosaka with storyboards and a fresh idea – make an animated adaptation. Nosaka was surprised and convinced by the concepts and Studio Ghibli was given the rights.
The opening scene immediately sets the tone for the film and identifies it as something significantly different than more traditional animated features. It’s a moving bit of foreshadowing which shapes our mental and emotional approach to what’s to come. I’ll leave it there because it truly is something you should take in for yourself (for those who haven’t seen it).
From there the story is told in flashback form. It focuses on a fourteenish boy named Seita and his 4 year-old sister Setsuko. It’s 1945 and the two live in Kobe, Japan with their mother while their father is away fighting the war with the Imperial Navy. One morning the sounds of air raid sirens pierce the sky. Seita sends his ailing mother to the bomb shelter and straps Setsuko to his back. After grabbing some belongings Seita runs outside to see incendiary bombs falling from the sky, almost beautiful in their decent. But on impact they ignite the entire neighborhood – houses, schools, stores, and many residents are incinerated.
Seita and Setsuko manage to survive but their mother is fatally burned. In one of the film’s many crushing scenes Seita finds his mother in a makeshift hospital and makes the decision not to tell Setsuko. It’s such a well constructed scene that doesn’t exploit the emotions of the moment. It lets them play out as naturally as anything you would see in a live-action rendition. The entire film handles the material with this type of reverence and sincerity.
With nowhere to go Seita and Setsuko’s story ultimately becomes one of survival. Without a home or parents they stay for time with their cruel and exploitative aunt. But soon they are driven away and once again find themselves on their own. Seita takes on the responsibility of caring for Setsuko himself. They essentially create their own little world and sustain it the best they can. Despite the harsh reality they face we also get scenes of them having fun as children do. Seita’s heartwarming compassion and sacrifice for his sister shows in the actions he takes. Setsuko’s love for her big brother comes through in every word or expression she shares with him. And as their circumstances grow more grim, they never lose their shared bond.
Takahata doesn’t shy away from the horrors of the bombings or the aftermath, but he doesn’t dwell on them either. Sobering glimpses jar us back to the reality these children face and we are never allowed to forget it. But every image is meaningful and effective. There is also practically no context given to the war, the two sides or their ideologies. Takahata isn’t interested in that even though the framework of the story may lead you to believe he is. His vision for the story is far more intimate and personal.
“Grave of the Fireflies” packs quite the emotional wallop. Writing on the conscientious yet more conventional animated films, Roger Ebert observed “they inspire tears, but not grief”. There is a lot of truth to that and it gets at what makes “Grave of the Fireflies” so special. It does more than ‘tug at your heartstrings’. It evokes deeper and more complex emotions. It does indeed give grief a powerful cinematic form. And even if (like me) you struggle with the animation style, the pure potency of the story and the care with which it is presented on screen trumps any hesitation you may have. The movie will not only move you, it will affect you, and that is one of the best compliments it can receive.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS