Grave of the Firelies by Isao Takahata (Review)

To be honest, I don’t think I want to meet a person who could watch this film and not be moved by the plight of Seita and Setsuko.
Grave of the Fireflies - Isao Takahata

I rarely give blanket movie recommendations, simply because many of my movie preferences are a bit, um, idiosyncratic compared to most people I know. But Grave of the Fireflies is one notable exception. To say I love this movie is an understatement. Actually, I’m hardpressed to think of a movie that’s so incredibly pure both as art and drama. Grave of the Fireflies is a movie that hits me so deeply that I honestly feel everyone should see it, without reservation. It’s hard to imagine someone not being impacted in some way by this film. To be honest, I don’t think I want to meet a person who could watch this film and not be moved by the plight of Seita and Setsuko.

The opening line of dialog (“On the night of September 21, 1945, I died.”) and the opening scene (a dirty train station filled with the dead and dying) ensures that this is not going to be a particularly upbeat movie. Our main character, a young boy named Seita, is slumped over in the station waiting for death. A janitor discovers a rusted metal box on his body, and assuming it’s trash, throws it outside. Surrounded by fireflies, the ghost of Seita’s younger sister Setsuko appears and runs to the side of Seita, who is now a spirit himself. Together, they travel back through their final days, revealing to the viewer the hardships they had to endure.

The war has turned against Japan, and American planes regularly firebomb the city of Kobe. During one such raid, Seita and Setsuko are delayed from joining their mother at the local shelter. When they finally arrive, Seita finds his mother’s mangled body, a victim of the bombing. After she dies, the children move in with a distant aunt, who quickly tires of the pair. Seita’s too busy taking care of Setsuko to do any real work, and two extra mouths to feed put a strain on the household’s supplies. The aunt soon makes it clear that they aren’t welcome anymore, and is especially disappointed with Seita’s apparent lack of concern for the war effort.

Stubborn and unwilling to compromise, Seita leaves with Setsuko. For a time, it seems like things might start looking up, as the two set up camp in some caves at a nearby lake. There, they can wait out the war and strife. Seita is determined to take care of Setsuko on his own, but despite his best efforts, Setsuko’s condition worsens from malnutrition. In the postwar economy, noone cares about two orphans. (Their father, a naval officer, is presumed dead when it’s announced that Japan has lost the war.) Before long, Seita is forced to steal for money and food. Unfortunately, it’s too little, too late.

Grave of the Fireflies is a tragedy, pure and simple. But it’s also a beautifully told, emotionally laden story about the love between Seita and Setsuko. Even in the midst of horrible hardships, the two never lose their faith and hope in eachother, which of course increases the tragedy of their fate.

On the one hand, you hate Seita for his pride and stubbornness, because it’s ultimately those things that doom them (a particularly moving scene involves Seita’s spirit finally realizing this as he looks back in tears). On the other hand, its root lies in his desire to care for his family. With his father gone, he’s the man of the house. As such, it’s difficult not to sympathize with him.

And Setsuko… dear Setsuko. I know she’s only a cartoon, but I can’t think of a more endearing character. You could spend hours watching her little mannerisms and facial expressions (lovingly animated by Studio Ghibli). Her smile alone is a wonder to behold, and her cheeks never lose their rosy sheen. After Setusko dies, there’s a final montage of her at the cave. It depicts her running around, playing house, cleaning, sewing, and just doing completely ordinary things that a little girl her age would do. It is both the most moving and the most heartwrenching scene in the movie. Scenes like this haunt you for days and weeks after seeing them, the slightest remembrance bringing tears to your eyes (like now). That’s the sign of powerful movie.

Created by the legendary Studio Ghibli and adapted from Akiyuki Nosaka’s semi-autobiographical novel, Grave of the Fireflies is beautiful to watch. Especially with the fine digital remastering job that the folks at Central Park Media have done. I’ve seen this movie several times, and it’s never looked more vibrant, even with its oft-muted colors (an anime technique to convey a scene’s gravity). But some scenes, such as those at the lake where Seita and Setsuko spend their final days, are especially deep and lush, looking more like impressionistic watercolors than mere animation.

For Takahata, the little details sometimes carry the deepest meaning. One brilliant scene takes place as the children capture fireflies to light up their cave. It’s a precious scene that ends with a shot of a firefly dying, it’s light dimming just before it falls to the ground. Such a little thing, but it perfectly underscores the situation and sets up Setsuko’s coming to terms with her mother’s death.

There are moments (Roger Ebert calls them “pillow scenes”) when the film pulls away from Seita and Setsuko, and focuses on something mundane — a discarded toy, a pail of water, a broken tree swing. These pauses are deliberate, helping you contemplate and fully realize what you’ve seen, and giving you time to breathe and prepare for what’s next. I find myself marveling at how gracefully Takahata does this. Nothing like this exists in American animation, and it’s a welcome relief from musical numbers, slapstick humor, and over-the-top characters.

Some have commented that Grave of the Fireflies carries anti-American sentiment. If you haven’t seen it, you might feel that way simply because it gives a Japanese perspective on WWII. Personally, I don’t see this at all, and furthermore, I think that sort of drivel serves only to cheapen the movie. We see American planes bombing and we know the historical setting of the movie. But the Americans are never mentioned by name. Very little attention is paid to the politics of the situation. By narrowing its focus to just two small Japanese orphans, I think Grave of the Fireflies says more about the true human cost of war than most war movies.

It’s especially poignant to watch Grave of the Fireflies in light of current events. We hear one report after another about how we must deal with Iraq and those who would shelter terrorists. But nothing is said about those who will be most affected by any battle, those who have nothing to do with the events and policies leading to war aside from their nationality.

It’s hard to imagine Grave of the Fireflies not becoming an intensely personal experience for someone who has seen it. It’s too rich a movie and just too tragic to be otherwise. But in the midst of the tragedy, there’s great and wondrous beauty; there are those tiny moments when Seita and Setsuko manage to hold back their current situation with love and compassion. Scenes like that allow you to forget about the inevitable. Before you know it, you’ve completely opened yourself up to Seita and Setsuko’s story. That’s a rare experience that defies description, but it’s one that I treasure.

Watch this movie. Please. Forget that it’s a cartoon. Forget that it’s anime. Forget that it’s not Disney. Forget about your preconceived notions. They’re meaningless and won’t stand a chance against this movie.

Watch it.

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