Running Time: 89 mins
Reviewer: David Gillespie – Official HCF Artist
Japan’s Studio Ghibli has proved with films such as the wonderful Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke that they can produce family features with enough imagination and excitement to rival anything that Pixar or Disney can offer. Although it might be argued that the animation is not as accurate or advanced as its western cousins, it does seem to harbour more soul. This might be by the way the characters move, interact or how the makers sometime stop to focus on a landscape or a change in weather? I was surprised how enchanted my children were when they watched Ponyo, one of the studio’s more child friendly offerings. However if Ponyo is designed for younger children then Grave of the Fireflies certainly falls into the opposite side of the spectrum. This is not a film for young children unless you want them to have nightmares for months after. The 1988 animated film is Gibli’s most adult orientated offering to date. It examines themes such as childhood resilience, survival and human loss. The story is based on a semi-autographical novel called Hotaru no Haka by Nosaka Akiyuki who was a child during the firebombing on his country in world war 2 and was haunted by grief and guilt from the events thereafter.
Opening in a crowded, post-war train station, we are introduced to a teenage boy called Seita (Tsutomu Tatsumi). He is scared, alone and dying. People scurry around him as if he is a ghost. In the next few moments, he will become one. The story follows his spirit as he reflects on his courageous but tragic journey, where he and his baby sister, Setsuko (Ayano Shiraishi) fought for survival after they lose their mother and father to the war. After a brief spell of living with their cold and unfeeling aunt, who openly moans about their presence in her home, they flee to a cave outside their town. After a brief spell of magic and happiness, they suffer as the rations become scarcer and people become more desperate and cruel. Seita struggles with his duties as provider and both siblings become weak and ill. Only their love and devotion to one another keep them going as the days grow darker.
When people reflect on anti-war movies that have had a fundamental effect on their lives they generally cite examples such as Schindler’s List, The Pianist or The Deer Hunter. Having recently watched Grave of the Fireflies, a film that I had never previously heard of, this will be going to the top of my list. Takahata’s movie is so compelling and moving that you forget that the characters that you are watching on screen are animations. From the opening scene you are aware of the sibling’s fate but their personalities and experiences are so expertly crafted that you can’t but fear for their safety. The power of the story is that it avoids lambasting the actions of the enemy. The Americans are never really mentioned. It reflects on the beautiful and precious things that are lost and will never flourish as a result of war. Seita and Setsuko always have the hope of better things to come because of their bond and love for one another. Hope and life are symbolised through the fireflies that illuminate their cave at night. In one beautiful and memorable scene, they both collect a bag of fireflies and release them within the confines of their mosquito net. When they awaken in the morning the insects have all died. Setsuko proceeds to bury the insects and comments to her brother that this was the manner in which she hoped her mother was buried. Seita reflects on the dead being thrown in to a mass grave and begins to cry. His young sister tries to comfort him.
The animation from Ghibli is as impressive as ever. Although the faces and anatomy are by no means accurate, the expressions of the characters and the gestures that they make during happy and tragic moments are astonishing. One of my favourite moments during the enchanting Spirited Away was where Chihiro and No-Face travel in a train across the ocean. There is no conversation and nothing much happens but the film is not afraid to stop for a little while, almost like an intermission. There is a similar scene involving Seita and Setsuko where they undertake a train journey to somewhere with hope. Seita looks as if he has the world on his young shoulders. Setsuko tugs on his jacket for him to open his tin of fruit sweets and his expression warms as he helps her. It brings tears to my glass eye just thinking about it. Even though these characters are hand drawn it is incredible that you completely invest in their love for each other. It could be a sequence where Seita continues to clown around in a desperate attempt to distract a crying Setsuko from the death of their mother. Or it might be the way Setsuko carefully climbs on a park bench to cuddle in and sleep on her brother.
Grave of the Fireflies is without doubt one of the greatest and most important war movies that I have had the pleasure to watch. Rarely have I felt more shaken and affected by a feature film. Although there are horrific scenes early on, including the repellent image of the mother’s charred and maggot infested body, most of the running time reflects on the hurt and survival of those left behind. This is a heartbreaking masterpiece that should be seen by anyone that has an interest in cinema or history. One word of advice though. Make sure that you have some form of light relief to fall back on after the final credits run. I don’t admit to crying very often when watching films but I was a blubbering wreck by the end of this.
Grave of the Fireflies is released as a double feature with Kiki’s Delivery Service on Blu-Ray and DVD on July 1st. DVD Extras include: Interview with Director Isao Takahata / Japanese Release Promo Featuring Interview with Director Isao Takahata and Writer Akiyuki Nosaka / Deleted Scenes Storyboards / Interview with Film Critic Roger Ebert / Historical Perspective Documentary / Trailers
Rating: – Unmissable