A film that is about children is not necessarily a film for children. The live-action adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are is more a reminiscence on the beauty and horror of childhood (as well as divorce) than it is something specifically meant to entertain kids. While it may have elements that appeal to children, I still contend that Toy Story 3 was truly meant to be enjoyed and appreciated by those who were children when the first film came out. A tragic meditation on the horrors of war and the human consequences of decisions like fire-bombing a small sea-side town does not seem like fodder for your typical children’s film. However, the legendary Studio Ghibli (Howl’s Moving Castle) took that risk and it surely paid off. For if Grave of the Fireflies isn’t one of the most emotionally powerful animated films you’ve ever seen, you may be broken on the inside.
Grave of the Fireflies isn’t just one of the best animated films I’ve seen; it is one of the most harrowing and heartbreaking war films ever made. Set in the waning days of World War II, Seita (Tsutomu Tatsumi) and Setsuko (Ayano Shiraishi) are orphans who lost their mother in the fire-bombing of Kobe, Japan. Their father is in the navy but it is unclear whether he is alive or part of the annihilation of virtually the entire Japanese fleet. It doesn’t matter. You never see or hear from him. Although Seita and Setsuko are originally allowed to live with an aunt, her greed and uncharitable attitude towards the two children (Seita is a young teenager. Setsuko is four five) to run away and attempt to make it on their own. Though they are able to find sustenance at first, it becomes quickly apparent that Seita and Setsuko won’t be able to make it on their own.
This is not a children’s movie. Although the film’s director claimed during it’s release that it was meant to be a reminder to Japanese youth (who in the 80s were experiencing record levels of juvenile delinquency) of the tragedies that befell their parents and grandparents, this is an anti-war film through and through. Children’s movies don’t generally cause the viewer to have his hands over his face in horror for the entire film. Children’s films may make you cry (The Iron Giant, Toy Story 3, Up), but they don’t leave you feeling nearly dead inside when the film is done. Grave of the Fireflies was heart-wrenching to the point that it caused me physical pain to watch the movie. Not since The Road have I sat through a film so emotionally powerful. If the notion of two children struggling (and failing) to survive in war-torn Japan sounds tough to bear, it’s cause it will be. I’m crying writing about the film.
Grave of the Fireflies joins that rare breed of film which offers almost nothing in the way of “entertainment” and is instead meant to horrify and educate its viewers. It sends a very potent political message (even if the screen-writer/director claims that wasn’t his intent), and if you’ve ever celebrated the U.S.’s actions in Japan during World War II, this film will remind you of the human costs of that victory. When you discover that most of the film is a true story (it’s an adaptation of a semi-autobiographical novel), it becomes nearly too real to handle. The film is full to the brim of tiny details that speak to the real-life horror that the novel’s author, Akiyuki Nosaka, suffered along with his sister and countless other Japanese orphans who fell through the cracks during the last months of the war. Along with Das Boot, it is one of the only war films that completely avoids any accidental glorification of war. It is pure horror.
The film’s animation is stunning. Whether it’s capturing the horror of the bombings, the physical degradation that Seita and Setsuko suffer due to malnutrition, or the rare moments of beauty the film offers, the animation always complements the action on screen. The film uses a recurring firefly visual motif which represents the impermanence of life (it’s both a Japanese cultural symbol as well as a visual concept that is readily apparent even to cultural outsiders), and the fireflies show up in one of the rare uplifting moments of the film (which is of course subverted shortly thereafter to break your heart again). Seita and Setsuko have moved to a small shelter inside a hillside. It’s dark and Setsuko is scared so Seita captures dozens of fireflies in a pot and releases them into the cave (which they can’t leave because of mosquito nettings). It’s simply a gorgeous and happy moment which are fleeting and rare, and the film instantly reminds you what kind of movie you’re watching when Setsuko has to bury them all in the very next scene.
The film also makes great use of color and moments of visual poetry that transform the scenes from simple visual representations of what happened Nosaka’s life into something more artistic. Without wanting to spoil some of the more tragic aspects of the film, the movie makes great use of tinting and color-wash to let us know what events are occurring and when moments are perceived more as spiritual and ethereal. The film’s score is also hauntingly effective as there’s a moment towards the end of the film where Seita and Setsuko’s suffering has become total where you see a different family return to their home, unbroken and with all of their belongings (and family) intact, and their record player sets off a gut-wrenching version of “Home Sweet Home.”
If I had to look for flaws in the movie, the obvious one is that Setsuko and Seita are never actually characterized. Instead, they’re meant to be the ultimate sympathetic constructs for the viewers to imprint their heartbreak and horror on. Some might accuse the director of trying to manipulate the audience’s emotion, but since so much of the film is true, he can avoid that charge. This film, once and for all, settles any debate as to whether or not anime can be considered the equal of the “purer” art of live-action cinema (or Western animation). Considering that this film is a truer and more unbearable representation of war than many so-called serious, live-action war films, I think the conversation is pretty much moot. Everyone needs to watch this movie, regardless of how you feel about anime. My only recommendation is that you have several boxes of tissues handy. You’re going to need them.
Final Score: A