Grave of the Fireflies is a frustrating film. And yet that appears to be by design. Director/writer Isao Takahata has made a film that is difficult to like about a subject that is difficult to explore. Japan’s participation in World War 2, as told from the Japanese perspective is something that is rarely explored on screen. And while Takahata has not made a film themed around whether the war was wrong or right, his movie does show the resulting horrors of war in a very direct and uncompromising manner.
Yet he also chooses to show the negative effects of arrogance and pride during desperate times and that is where he challenges the audience the most. The story follows Seita – a young soldier’s son and his younger sister Setsuko, who lose their home in a bombing and have to fend for themselves. It is a tough watch, but not only for the obvious reasons. Takahata has created in Seita a character who is irresponsible, filled with pride and overall ignorance about how the world works. He makes bad and even fatal decisions throughout the film that lead him and his sister, for whom he is responsible, down a path from which they can not return.
The choices the main character makes are infuriating to the audience. His only excuse being his age (14), though Takahata makes sure to portray him as much more mature than a regular 14 year old. This adds to the audience’s surprise at his infuriating decisions. It’s clear that Takahata wants to tell a personal story about the flaws of humanity – yes the wars humans wage are horrific, but their pride and arrogance can also have horrifying consequences that lead to further innocent victims.
The film’s animation feels a lot more ‘artistic’ and at times outright beautiful even compared to something like My Neighbor Totoro, because Takahata is thankfully not afraid of including images simply because they look great on screen. He knows the importance of creating an atmosphere that pulls the viewer into the story. A great example of that is how successfully the images portray the isolation of the two main characters. The lingering stillness allows us to wallow in the predicament in which we find the main characters.
I can’t say that I like Grave of the Fireflies, but I certainly admire it. Takahata has clearly made a film that is close to his heart and has made a very non-mainstream anime in the process. It’s admirable, and very beautifully realized. And while it has worked like gangbusters for some, I can only give it a slight recommendation. B-
The film has frequently been labeled as one of the saddest movies of all-time. Takahata doesn’t pull any punches, but despite that, it has pretty much become required viewing in Japanese classrooms. Of course, since it deals with World War 2, controversy quickly followed its release. South Korea temporarily banned it due to its alleged ‘soft, bordering on favorable’ portrayal of the Japanese involvement in the war. But the film was a big success in Japan and internationally and along with My Neighbor Totoro, announced Studio Ghibli as one of the premier animation studios.
Since then the film has developed quite the following. It’s currently ranked as the 55th best film on the IMDB Top 250 and is found on many other Best Of lists online. It’s fanbase may only grow as people discover it on home video.
Next week I’ll review the critical 1988 hit Rain Man! Hope to see you then!
1988 #15: The Great Outdoors
1988 #14: Time of the Gypsies
1988 #13: Bull Durham
1988 #12: A Short Film About Love
1988 #11: Heathers
1988 #10: Coming to America
1988 #9: Beetlejuice
1988 #8: Cinema Paradiso
1988 #7: Big
1988 #6: Who Framed Roger Rabbit
1988 #5: Akira
1988 #4: My Neighbor Totoro