Friday, February 10, 2012

100 Movies - No. 43: Grave of the Fireflies

43. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Animation, Drama, War, 89 minutes
Directed by Isao Takahata
Starring the voices of Rhoda Chrosite and J. Robert Spencer (English version)

How can I possibly do this film justice? I'm almost in tears just thinking about what I am going to write. The film was released in Japan as part of the same double bill and both have claims to being the best Studio Ghibli releases thus far. My Neighbor Totoro was the other film, and it's possibly the most uplifting film in my collection. In contrast, Grave of the Fireflies is the saddest. I'll try to explain why.

Both films feature girls who are four years old and both are utterly adorable. Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki seem to know exactly how to capture the innocence, curiosity, trust and unconditional love that a young child gives its parents and older siblings.

Grave of the Fireflies is set in Japan during World War II. Unlike most war films, the story is not too concerned with the actual war itself or any of the battles. This is a film about the effects of war. Don't assume that it is aimed at children just because it's animated; it's clearly aimed at an older audience. The opening scene gives an indication of what to expect when we hear Seita's (Spencer) narration and find out that this is the day that he dies. After his death, we see his spirit reunited with that of his little sister, Setsuko (Chrosite). This is not a spoiler. It happens three minutes into the film and everything else is told through the use of flashback. We know right away that the children will die.

It's impossible to discuss the film properly without including spoilers, so be warned.

Seita is about 14 years old and is responsible for looking after his sister when their mother is hospitalized. Conditions are awful and the mother dies fairly quickly. Their father is away fighting in the war and possibly dead, so Seita takes his sister to live with an aunt. Unfortunately, they aren't welcome guests because the aunt feels that they contribute nothing. As a result, Seita leaves with Setsuko and decides that they will live in a cave near the beach.

Everything is fine for a while, but the situation in Japan means that very little food is available. The two thrive in each other's company, but it's difficult to stay healthy when you don't have enough to eat. The film doesn't push its message continually, but we see sores develop on the backs of the children as they are wading in the ocean. They are developing malnutrition.

Why am I recommending such a depressing story?

There is great beauty in the film. I particularly love seeing Seita's inadequate attempts to make Setsuko happy and care for her. She trusts him unconditionally throughout the story. When he mentions that they need money, she produces a little purse and offers what she has. She's happy at the smallest little things such as the taste of her favorite fruit drops or the light of the fireflies in the cave. It's heartbreaking to see her become ill and watch her eventual demise. Her final words will always haunt me, and Seita's simple declaration which follows.

One of the most touching scenes is a flashback within a flashback, showing how she liked to play outside the cave. If you have seen the film, you'll probably feel the same way.

Grave of the Fireflies is an important anti-war film. The story is partially true and is based on the author's failure to keep his own sister safe during the war. So, thinking back to my opening comments, the scene three minutes into the film when their spirits are reunited is incredibly beautiful and uplifting once you realize how pure their relationship was. It's worth seeing that scene again after watching the film in order to fully appreciate its beauty.

Takahata's depiction of Setsuko and Miyazaki's depiction of Mei in My Neighbor Totoro have given us two animated children that we will never forget. The images are so powerful that the films might even encourage you to treat your own siblings differently. It's easy to take things for granted in life. I live in North America and have never really wanted for anything. My life isn't in danger. Films like Grave of the Fireflies help remind me to appreciate the simple joy of living and the freedom to do so in peace.

Mere words aren't sufficient to describe the power and beauty of Grave of the Fireflies. You really have to see it for yourself.

If you like Grave of the Fireflies:

I can't think of another film with the same message, so I will just suggest that fans check out other works by Studio Ghibli. All of the films have good values and are set in beautiful worlds.

If you want another animated title aimed at adults, I would suggest Watership Down. Although most of the characters are rabbits, this is not a cute world where nothing bad ever happens. The rabbits face all manner of dangers. Like humans in the real world, their own species is often their most dangerous foe.

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  1. Grave of the Fireflies is literally the saddest film I've ever seen. When I started looking for photos to use for my review, I started to tear up just thinking about it. It's one of those films that stays with you forever. I've put it at number one on my Top 10 Best Studio Ghibli Film's list, followed closely by Spirited Away. I'm just glad I'm not the only one that blubbers like a baby at this film. Roger Ebert said it perfectly, "The most powerful anti-war film ever made."

    1. Ghibli has five or six perfect films, and Fireflies is one of them. If I were an actor, I would probably use it when I needed to cry. I think most people expect it to be cute and happy because it's animated.