Grave of the Fireflies



Reviewed by Lyle Sylvander

(Spring 2008)

Perhaps more than any other country, Japan has elevated the art of animation from the confines of children’s entertainment.

However, nothing in the anime universe quite compares with Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no Haka) in terms of emotional effect and power.  Adapted from the novel by Nosaka Akiyuki, the film is not only one of the best animated features ever produced but also one of the greatest anti-war films as well.

Famous exports like Akira and Ghost in the Shell combine science fiction and action film contrivances into violent and often apocalyptic visions of the future.   At the other end of the spectrum, Hiyao Miyazaki’s fantastical and mature narratives (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke) have won over critics and audiences throughout the world.

The film takes place during the waning days of World War II, when American planes dropped bombs on Japan.  The story, relatively simple in turns of plot details but complex in emotional development, relates the survival tactics of the teenage Seita and his younger sister Setsuko.  As food and water are scarce, the Japanese populace has turned competitive amongst themselves even between friends and relatives.  After his mother dies in a bombing, Seita realizes that he and Setsuko must survive on their own, with him as his sister’s protector and provider.  Since the film opens with Setsuko’s death and is told in flashback by the boy’s spirit, there is no suspense as to the children’s fate.  Rather, the film emphasizes the slow and painful fight for survival among the nation’s civilian populace during wartime.

Takahata eschews melodrama in favor of a direct approach, allowing the story to develop without extraneous emotion or superfluous detail.  The animated landscape resembles the traditional Japanese woodblock prints where detail is often balanced by empty space and simplicity.  As a result, the viewer contemplates the painful world inhabited by the protagonists as they fight for survival.  Paradoxically, the choice of animation simplifies the visual language and brings the emotional core of the story front and center – if the film were shot in live-action, it would have been harder for the director to control the visual environment and prevent the emotions from shifting to the periphery.   Takahata’s artistic rendering of Setsuko emphasizes her innocence and contrasts sharply with the harsh reality of her situation.  In one especially moving sequence, Setsuko buries dead fireflies as she imagines her mother was buried.  It is one of the most heart wrenching scenes in film history – the loss of childhood innocence has rarely been portrayed so powerfully.

Unfortunately, Grave of the Fireflies flopped at the box office in 1988 and did not receive distribution outside of Japan.  The film’s production company, Studio Ghibli, released it concurrently with Hiyao Miyazaki’s enormously popular My Neighbor Totoro.  The latter film’s family appeal overshadowed the seriousness of Fireflies and pushed it out of the limelight.  Since being rediscovered at the Chicago International Film Festival in 1994, Fireflies has garnered an iconic reputation among anime aficionados.  The film has also been championed by the popular movie critic Roger Ebert, who lists it in his book The Great Movies (Volume Two).  Central Park Media has provided a fine DVD release for the film in the United States and includes a bonus disc featuring an interview with Ebert, a documentary on the restoration of the film, an interview with Isao Takahata, a collection of animation cells and storyboards, a comparison of the film’s animated locations with contemporary photos of the actual locations (all in the Kansai region), and an interview with Theodore and Haruko Taya Cook, authors of Japan at War and Emperor’s War, People’s War, concerning the historical context of the story.  Overall, this is a must-see film for anyone with an interest in Japanese history and culture.  In our age of visual over-stimulation, Grave of the Fireflies’ minimalist aesthetic is a testament to the old adage that “less is more”.

It should serve as an abject lesson for our contemporary animation studios that cartoons are not solely for children.  If done properly, they can move an adult audience to tears.

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