Together with the legendary Hayao Miyazaki, anime director Isao Takahata founded Studio Ghibli, the storied company that brought us more than half of the 15 highest grossing anime films ever made in Japan. Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies is not among the highest grossing films, perhaps because it focuses on the aftermath of World War II Japan. Grave of the Flies is not a fun movie per se, but it is nevertheless a pure joy to watch, deserving of a place among the pantheon of anime films of all-time.
- Director: Isao Takahata
- Writer: Isao Takahata, Akiyuki Nosaka,
- Cast: Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi, Yoshiko Shinohara, Akemi Yamaguchi
Grave of the Fireflies takes a rare hard look at a community during the final days of World War II. A teenage boy, Seita (Tsutomu Tatsumi), is forced into survival mode while caring for himself and his little sister, Setsuko (Ayano Shiraishi), as their mother has become a bomb victim. Their father is said to be fighting in the imperialist army. While their father may one day return, the need for food and shelter is urgent. Attempting to keep his sister protected against the atrocious destruction around them, Seita’s need for resourcefulness becomes greater and greater as the war comes to an end.
Picture an anime film brave enough to tackle the subject matter of postwar Japan, with images of bodies burned in mass graves, buildings being bombed, and bodies covered in rashes and flies. The detail in both the foreground and the background is rich, as when people can be seen taking shelter while a man runs around in the distance as fires burn everywhere. Such is the detail that it doesn’t matter whether we’re shown an aerial shot or a close-up of collapsed buildings or ailing bodies. Even the dialogue is spread with intricate details, as when a dinner conversation delves into the over-worked factories that remain while others have been destroyed. The rationing of sea salt is briefly mentioned as well.
Describing the film gives the impression that its value stems mostly from its handling of death. But almost as surprising as the reality it conveys, Grave of the Fireflies encapsulates so much humanity that its emotional impact is just as responsible for its power. Especially delightful is that so many touching scenes involve ordinary moments. Amidst a catastrophic environment, brother and sister stand in admiration of fireflies, gushing water and wild berries. There is a great moment when Seito tries to district Setsuko by doing some gymnastic moves on a bar. The master shot that ends this scene is quietly effective without the use of words and a limited color palette.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
That a film with so much substance takes its time to convey a sense of innocent quiet time serves as proof that the film’s intent is different from others that seek shock value. The action never feels exploitative, instead director Takahata allows his characters and their predicament to breathe, and “meditate on its consequences”. I stand in complete agreement that Grave of the Fireflies “is an emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation.” As Mr. Ebert’s review mentions, it is a powerful dramatic film that happens to be animated. When Mr. Ebert points out that Hollywood is typically pursuing the ideal of “realistic animation”. He draws attention to Hollywood’s pursuit in order to shed perspective on Grave of the Fireflies as great art. Art should not be entirely about discussing the style. It should also have the ability to convey human emotions. In this sense, what we have here is not just great art, but a great human experience in the form of a simple survival story.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: GREAT
Do you like Grave of the Fireflies? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: Leolo
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 354 films. Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies this week, he now has 307 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go.