Of the six films chosen for the Animation Marathon, Grave of the Fireflies was the only one that I hadn’t heard much about. The only thing I knew about it was that it was sad. Infamously sad. After watching the movie, I can say that it certainly does live up to those expecations. It’s a heartbreaking movie, all the moreso because it’s animated. Spoilers ahead…
The film begins by showing us a 14 year old boy lying dead on a subway platform, so you can’t really say that the filmmakers were trying to hide the tragedy in this film. The boy’s name is Seita, and through flashbacks, we learn how he came to meet his end. Set during the last days of World War II, the story is kicked off by the American firebombing of Seita’s city. Seita’s father is in the Japanese Navy and Seita’s mother is horribly wounded by bombing, eventually succumbing to her wounds. The entire city is destroyed, leaving Seita and his little 4 year old sister Setsuko homeless. For a time, they take refuge with an Aunt, who seems nice at first, but gets grumpier as she realizes that Seita isn’t willing to contribute to the war effort, or to help around the house. Eventually, Seita finds an unused bomb shelter where he can live with his sister without being a burden on their Aunt. It being wartime, food is scarce, and Seita struggles and ultimately fails to support his sister.
This isn’t quite like any other animated movie I’ve ever seen. It’s a powerful and evocative film. It has moments of great beauty, even though it’s also quite sad. It displays a patience that’s not common in animated movies. There are contemplative pauses. Characters and their actions are allowed time to breath. The animations are often visually striking, even when they’re used in service of less-than-pleasant events (such as the landscape shot of the city as it burns).
After I finished the film, I was infurated. Obviously no one really enjoys watching two kids starve, suffer, and die after losing their family and home to a war, but it’s not just sad. As I said before, it’s infuriating. I was so pissed off at Seita because he made a lot of boneheaded, prideful decisions that were ultimately responsible for the death of his sister (and eventually, himself). At one point in the film, as Seita begs a farmer for food, the farmer tells him to swallow his pride and go back to his aunt. Seita refuses, and hence the tragedy. But at least he’s young and thus reckless, which is understandable. While I was upset at Seita’s actions, I really couldn’t blame only him and the film did prompt some empathy for that character. I can’t say the same of the Aunt. Who lets two young kids go off to live by themselves in wartime? Yeah, Seita wasn’t pulling his weight, but hell, your job as an adult is to teach children about responsibilities… It was wartime for crying out loud. There had to be plenty to do. Yeah, it’s sad. Especially when it comes to Setsuko, who was only 4 years old. But other than that, it was infuriating, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to rate the movie. Then I read about some context in the Onion A.V. Club review of the movie (emphasis mine):
Adapting a semi-autobiographical book by Akiyuki Nosaka, Takahata scripted and directed Fireflies while his Studio Ghibli partner, Hayao Miyazaki, was scripting and directing his own classic, My Neighbor Totoro. The two films were produced and screened as a package, because Totoro was considered a difficult sell, while Fireflies, as an “educational” adaptation of a well-known historical book, had a guaranteed audience. But while both films won high praise at home and abroad, it’s hard to imagine the initial impact of watching them back to back. Totoro is a bubbly, joyous film about the wonders of childhood, while Fireflies follows two children as they starve, suffer, and die after American planes firebomb their town.
…Nosaka, who lost his own young sister under similar circumstances, apparently intended his book in part to chronicle his shameful pride, while Takahata explains … that he wanted viewers to learn a moral lesson from Seita’s hubris. Instead, he reports, they mostly sympathized with the boy, which is easy to do.
It turns out that my feelings about the film were exactly what the filmmakers were going for, which kinda turned me around and made me realize that the film really is brilliant (in other words, my expecation of the film as having to be “Sad” made me feel strange because, while it was certainly sad, it was also infuriating. Now that I know the infurating part was intentional, it makes a lot more sense.) As the Onion article brilliantly summarizes, “not so much an anti-war statement as it is a protest against basic human selfishness, and the way it only worsens during trying times.” And that’s sad, but it’s also quite annoying.
The animation is very well done, and while some might think that something this serious would not be appropriate in animation, I’m not sure it would work any other way. One of the most beautiful scenes in the film shows the two children using fireflies to light their abandoned bomb shelter. It’s a scene I think would look cheesy and fake in a live action film, but which works wonderfully in an animated film. Roger Ebert describes it well:
It isn’t the typical material of animation. But for “Grave of the Fireflies,” I think animation was the right choice. Live action would have been burdened by the weight of special effects, violence and action. Animation allows Takahata to concentrate on the essence of the story, and the lack of visual realism in his animated characters allows our imagination more play; freed from the literal fact of real actors, we can more easily merge the characters with our own associations.
In the end, while this is definitely an excellent film, I find it difficult to actually recommend it (for what I hope are obvious reasons). This type of movie is not for everyone, and while I do think it is brilliantly executed, I don’t especially want to watch it again. Ever. In an odd sort of way, that’s a testament to how well the film does what it does. (***1/2)
(In a strange stroke of coincidence, I had actually watched Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro just a few days before Fireflies, not quite mimicking the back to back screenings mentioned in the Onion article, but close enough to know that it was an odd combo indeed (and I can’t imagine the playful and fun Totoro being a “harder sell” than the gut-punch of Fireflies.))