GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES (1988)
Updated: Apr 27, 2020
An anime gut-punch from Studio Ghibli!
Director: Isao Takahata
Cast/Voices: Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi, Akemi Yamaguchi, Yoshiko Shinohara
Related films: Barefoot Gen, Black Rain, The Tale of Princess Kaguya
Grave of the Fireflies is known as one of the saddest animes ever made, but from sadness comes strength. The impact of the story is not easily forgotten. Yes, there are som truly gut wrenching moments, and happy Hollywood endings are nowhere in sight. Still, the two main characters approach wartime atrocities with encouraging innocence. It might not be uplifting, but the film is far from as hard to watch as its reputation might suggest.
We are presented a (fairly) realistic tale of two siblings trekking through a bombed and torn asunder Kobe at the end of WWII. The chemistry between the two is the very foundation of the film, and it stands strong, even 30 years later. The story grabs hold from the very first sequences, and holds you tight till the end credits roll. Do not let the dead serious theme stop you from checking out Grave of the Fireflies. Behind the heinous exterior hides a profound and heartfelt story that is not to be missed.
The opening of the film is indeed a hard blow to swallow. It tells the story of two young children losing their mother, while their father is out on the front lines. The determined brother Seita decides to meet this impossible challenge head-on, and leaves his family home with his sister Setsuko on his back. They head for their aunt’s in hope of finding shelter.
The aunt is struggling just as much as everybody else in the war-torn landscape, and she takes it out on Seita. She constantly complains about him being a burden who is not working to support his family. So unwelcome is Seita made to feel that he choses to leave with his sister to find lodging elsewhere.
On the outskirts of the city they move into an abandoned bomb shelter, where they create a makeshift home of sticks and stones. In the daytime Seita rummage the city ruins for scraps of food and other loot. In the nighttime the siblings try to forget their hunger by entertaining themselves as best they can in the close-by wilderness.
The 1983 anime film Barefoot Gen is comparable to Grave of the Fireflies on several levels. Many similarities are of course caused by the historical setting, as well as the universally «appealing» sentiments found between the lines. Having two sibling protagonists in the grimmest setting thinkable does not appear equally coincidental. The impact of Barefoot Gen echoes through Grave of the Fireflies. At the same time, the latter offers another perspective that makes it stand strong on its own legs.
Grave of the Fireflies arguably has more of an emotional impact. Its reliance on personal tragedy, as opposed to the huge action sequences in Barefoot Gen, is more moving than shocking. Both films have «appeal» though, depending on what you are after. Anti-war sentiments are perhaps more clearly outlined in Barefoot Gen, while Grave of the Fireflies apply a more philosophical angle.
Seeing Seita in diseased and decayed city ruins also brings to mind Shôhei Imamura’s Black Rain (1989). The shocking imagery of cityscapes in the aftermath of air raid firebombing are at times very comparable to Imamura’s film. Naturally, Grave of the Fireflies is like a PG-13 rated version of Imamura’s horrific vision, but it still carries a lot of weight.
Between the lines
The title of the film refers to a scene in which the siblings catch fireflies to light up the bomb shelter. They are amazed by the creatures’ beauty, and saddened by the heaps of dead fireflies the next morning. The concept of appreciating fleeting beauty is a time-honored tradition in Japanese art and culture. More so, the juxtaposition of a firefly mass grave next to piles of wartime casualties makes you think about the meaning of it all.
The brutality of war seems not only a senseless waste of life and beauty, it makes us realize our own fragile nature. Are our lives as fleeting as that of fireflies? Does it hold any profound meaning at all, or are we just vessels made to create and observe passing moments of beauty? One message shines through a little stronger than others: Good things never last.
Furthermore, the senselessness of human behavior in war is questioned. Why do we always behave like this, and who is to blame? Was it Japan for attacking Pearl Harbor? Was it America for retaliating? Was it the mistreating aunt’s fault that the siblings decided they’d rather starve than stay? Or was it the doctor, who provided no other help than advising the siblings to eat more to combat malnourishment.
Ultimately the elder brother decided to live outside the confines of a broken society, but his choice led him down a dark path. The message might be that staying together makes us strong, but at what cost. The siblings could have chosen to stay in a constant state of mistreatment, but instead opted for freedom and a constant fight for survival on their own terms. Might they have been the image of individuality’s final demise in postwar Japan?
The scenery and details are as spectacularly drawn as in any other Ghibli film. The Studio’s unmistakable feel - most often associated with cute childlike fantasies - proves to be just as effective no matter the topic, even one as grim as wartime atrocities. Grave of the Fireflies holds up well. It does not look much dated, even compared to Ghibli films released 25 years later. (Bear in mind that this review is based on the Blu-ray release from 2013.)
The voice acting of Tsutomu Tatsumi and Ayano Shiraishi deserves extra special praise. At only five years of age, Shiraishi gave a most impressive and believable performance. The tragedy truly comes alive through these child actors’ voices. Coupled with the classic Ghibli line it makes for an anime film that will outlive us all.
Successfully adding a trickle of encouragement and beauty to such a gruesome tale is no small feat. It certainly reflects the idea that the good things in life should never be forgone. Just like the siblings push aside the death and destruction around them, Grave of the Fireflies diverts our gaze away from the horror and onto fleeting moments of beauty. It makes us remember that we should all pay attention, because we are all to blame.
It is a timeless film for sure, both because of its stunning cinematography, and because of the story it tells. The disastrous effects of war brought down on innocent people should never be forgotten. Grave of the Fireflies perfectly introduces the subject in a manner that can be understood and related to by audiences of all ages. For all these reasons, it is a film that belongs in any serious anime or Japanese film collection.
Like most other Ghibli films, Grave of the Fireflies was looking pretty great on DVD, but the remastered Blu-ray edition offers crisp images on another level. If you’re aiming for an evening in doom and gloom, why not do it properly, in full HD.
For some reason, Grave of the Fireflies only appears available for streaming on Amazon UK. But fret not, American readers can stream the film on Hulu.