Grave of the Fireflies (dir. Isao Takahata, 1988)
“Why must fireflies die so young?”
It’s World War II era Japan – Seita and Setsuko are the very young son and daughter of a Japanese soldier away at war and mother trying to maintain the home, and provide safety of her children in the midst of continuous air raids. During one such bombing the mother is badly burned and is transported to a hospital in a nearby city. While she fights for her life Seita becomes the caretaker of his much younger sister and the well-being of the both of them becomes his burden to bear.
Why We Love It
Animation is a limitless form of artistic storytelling. It has no bounds. If it can be imagined then it can be drawn, and if it can be drawn it can be put in motion. However, it’s this film which has no creatures, no fantasy, no talking animals, nor anything else commonly found in our favorite animated features that most exemplifies what animated films can do that a live-action counterpart would find incredibly difficult.
Reading the screenplay it probably doesn’t come across that it should, or would become an animated feature. It’s as simple as two kids struggling to fight off malnourishment and starvation – a very serious theme for a story that’s hard to envision being told in a vessel most relegated to the younger demographic – however, the complications that come of not only finding two kids capable of portraying starving siblings but also having to alter their figure as the story progresses (so as to appear as starving siblings) makes the story seem untellable in a live-action world; short of actually starving two children. It’s one thing for Christian Bale to voluntarily lose a hundred pounds for a role, but quite another to reduce a child to skin and bones for the sake of art. Not to mention, it takes a certain level of mature understanding for a child to comprehend the predicament of the characters enough to reenact them. So, believability becomes the biggest obstacle and one that’s more easily avoided in an animated setting.
Thus far the film probably sounds incredibly grim, but what makes Grave of the Fireflies exceptional are the many moments of sheer beauty that contrast the events of the story. It opens with the narration of our main character giving us the date of his death – a day not long after the chronological beginning to the narrative. So, we know offhand that regardless of what happens during the course of the flashback the story doesn’t end happily, but you’d never expect to feel by film’s end the way you do knowing that the hero’s final day is spent alone and starved in a subway station. On paper it would read like a tragedy about the effects of war on the innocent – which it is – but in the visual execution it meets a perfect balance of the melancholy of their situation and the tenderness of a relationship between an older brother and his baby sister. It feels simultaneously like a horrific depiction of war, but also a celebration of the unconditional love of family, a persistence to nurture, and the experiences of awe in childhood.
Moment We Fell in Love
Seita has just received word that his mother is being moved to a hospital for care while Setsuko has been anxious to see her since they were separated during the attack that demolished the village. Seita explains to Setsuko that their mother is being moved to a hospital and that they can see her later, and tries to downplay the severity of her injuries so as not to worry his little sister. Setsuko is obviously upset by the news, but she nonetheless tries desperately to hold back the tears – to no avail. As Setsuko stands crouched with her face in her hands Seita attempts to entertain and distract her (himself as well) by flipping around on a metal bar. While the act goes unnoticed by Setsuko it hints at the kind of devotion Seita will show as he gradually becomes his baby sister’s hope for survival.
Grave of the Fireflies is an anomaly of animated storytelling, especially to us Westerners. In this day-and-age where most animated films could be recreated with live-action filmmaking integrated with computer generated imagery (though expensively) Grave of the Fireflies is a story that is conventionally more fit for the real world, but its success relies on the controllability of animation due to the awful condition of the young subjects – a situation that a real-life child will probably have great difficulty depicting without having experienced similar trials.
A few years ago a filmmaker from Iraq made a film called Turtles Can Fly about the current state of affairs on the border of Iraq and Turkey a few days before the invasion of the United States military and the dethroning of the Hussein regime. Its focus was on a group of village kids who deal daily with digging up land mines for money and the psychological effects of abuse at the hands of the Iraqi military. It’s an under-seen movie that’s not, in any way, for the fainthearted, but it shares a common backbone with Grave of the Fireflies in its illustration of the effects of war on those not participating – mainly children. Turtles Can Fly has some of the most impressive child-acting I’ve ever seen and I have to think it’s largely due to the experiences of the actors relating to their characters, because they’ve unfortunately lived in the time of the story.
If Grave of the Fireflies had been filmed during the 1940s I can perceive it taking on a live-action form, especially in the hands of someone like Kenji Mizoguchi, as its content would be fresh in the mindset of all its contributors. If that version turned out half as good as this film did it would probably be regarded as one of the premiere films of 20th century. That’s how good this intimate, animated picture from Japan actually is.