Grave of the Fireflies (火垂るの墓) was released in 1988 as a double feature with Miyazaki’s Tonari no Totoro. According to Nausicaa.net, this was because Totoro was seen as an investment risk, so it was paired with Grave, which is based on a well-known autobiographical novel and would have been seen as having educational value. I personally cannot imagine a pairing that would be worse than Grave and Totoro. This is not because I find either film to be “unworthy” – to the contrary, these are both five-star films that I love very much. However, the light-hearted tone of Totoro compromises the serious nature of Grave, and the reverse is true as well – the distressing nature of Grave will surely dilute the optimism of Totoro. It appears, from Nausicaa.net’s writing, that the production was not entirely successful in theatres, and that it was through merchandise sales involving Totoro characters that Studio Ghibli managed to recuperate all of its spendings and proceed to their next film.
Grave of the Fireflies is one of the most important Studio Ghibli films, and certainly among the most emotional and heartbreaking films ever made. It certainly shows the versatility and potential of the animation medium to effectively depict serious, human dramas. Many people might say at first glance that Grave could be done to the same effect as a live-action story, but I don’t agree. This implies that animation is only useful to depict fantastical elements that are not possible in reality. Since a live-action version of Grave was indeed produced, a comparison can be made directly. The live-action film may be successful in its own way, but Grave possesses something different, a quality inherent to the medium its produced in. Early on in the film, Seita, the main character, lies on a subway floor, weak and in his last days, and the camera pans across the subway to the exit, where the ghosts of Seita and his sister play happily before a background of rising fireflies. It is a haunting sight and scene, and one that I could not imagine working so effectively outside of the animated form.
The film takes place during World War 2, and focuses on two children who have been orphaned due to air raids. Seita and Setsuko are forced to move and live with an unwelcoming aunt who already struggles for her own family, and sees them as a burden. As the war environment around them becomes more and more difficult to survive in, Seita attempts to escape their aunt’s escalating tensions by moving into an empty hillside shelter. Here, the children attempt to fend for themselves and survive together. As I alluded to earlier, the film is based on the true story of Akiyuki Nosaka, who lost his sister to malnutrition and wrote a book on the experience partly due to the guilt which haunted him over his responsibility for her death.
The film is tragic and distressing, but never crosses the line of being manipulative. There is no sweeping emotional music underlying the saddest scenes, the tragic events are presented to us realistically and harshly. The first death towards the end of the film of a main character is one of the most moving and affecting deaths that I have ever seen in a film. The ending was so powerful that it remained prominent in my mind for days after I finished my first view of the film. A large part of this emotional impact is due to how realistic the characters act and feel. Seita and Setsuki feel like real siblings, Seita feels like a young boy and I have never seen a toddler portrayed as effectively as Setsuko. I believe that a girl of equivalent age was used to voice her in the Japanese version, and I can imagine that this must have been a difficult job for the director. But it paid off incredibly well, because her character felt so genuine and so believable that seeing her suffer was a painful experience. Many people criticize Seita for not making the best decisions in this film and being responsible for the tragic events which occur. Yet they are completely missing the point. No, Seita does not make the best decisions, and this is because he is a child who should never have those burdens on him to begin with. Grave is a story about children who are put in positions they should never have to deal with, and as the audience, we want to reach out towards them and help them, but cannot.
One thing that disturbs me about critical response to the film is the way that some critics approach the film politically, yet this angle rarely entered my mind during the film. This is a story that is universal and could happen in any place affected by war. It is an antiwar tale in its purest sense because it avoids getting tangled up in politics and instead focuses on the simple story of two children who must suffer through no fault of their own. You could also approach the film as a denunciation of pride, as it is partly this characteristic of Seita’s flawed, teenage mindset that is responsible for the events of the latter half. Of course, many might take it to be a metaphor of Japanese pride during the war, but I really do believe that trying to see political messages in the film undercuts the simpler message which, at least to me, is the more powerful one.
The animation is lifelike and convincing, not because of photorealism, but because of the attention to detail that Studio Ghibli is renowned for. The small mannerisms of Setsuko, for example, go such a long way in establishing the believability I referred to earlier. The portrayal of air raids and attacks are visually vivid, but brief. That is not the focus of the film. The voice acting is uniformly excellent, and I cannot give enough praise to the voice acting of Setsuko and Seita. As for the music, it is naturally dated (the film is about twenty years old, after all) but works perfectly well within the film.
Grave of the Fireflies will never be the most popular Ghibli film, nor it will be the kind of film you will find yourself rewatching constantly. It is difficult to get through and distressing to finish, but I firmly believe that it is an important film which everyone, not merely anime fans, should be exposed to. I don’t know of any film which accomplishes what it sets out to do any better, and I do not think that I will ever forget the image of the ghosts of Seita and Setsuko, reunited after their hardships, gazing over the modern city which has forgotten them.
3 responses so far