Grave of the Fireflies

I have what can only be described as an extreme prejudice about anime. It feels juvenile to even say it, but I never found myself attracted to it at all. I mostly felt this way in high school, where it seemed too happy and goofy and did not fit in with my sullen, serious, life, where I would sit and watch Ratcatcher on a blow-up Aerobed. I know I saw an anime or two at some point - Princess Mononoke, I think, but I don't remember it. For that reason, I always consider today's movie to be the first anime I ever watched all the way through. I was glad to watch Grave of the Fireflies, directed by Isao Takahata in 1988, today when I got home.

I watched it in my history of Japan class that I took in college. I was skeptical of it, of course. "Peh," I thought, "how could anime be serious enough to deal with war and stuff?" Of course, I was so stupidly wrong. This is one of the best films about war that I have ever seen. It shows the suffering and grief, but without any distractions of violence or gore, if that makes any sense. It works so perfectly as an animated film, and I think so much of what makes this great would have been lost in a live-action movie. It is a sad movie, one of those ones that deeply affects you and stays with you later. You might not cry, but you will always think of these characters, because the grief you will feel will be profound. I hate saying movies are sad, because I feel like it turns off a lot of people. It is a sad movie, but it is a beautiful movie, and an important movie. It's about war, and like it or not, war is filled with sorrow, and it needs to be conveyed.
The movie takes place in Kobe, Japan, during the bombings in World War II. We follow Seita, a young boy, barely a teenager, and his little sister, Setsuko, maybe only five. The film starts out with tragedy - Seita is dying in a subway stations with many other homeless. A little tin of fruit drops is found on his body, and when discarded, ashes come out, releasing the spirit of Setsuko. The film flashes back, just before a firebombing. The two siblings are leaving their mother so they can go to a bomb shelter. Nothing works out. Seita soon discovers his mother was hurt, and she quickly dies from her numerous burns. He takes Setsuko to go live with an aunt, but the aunt is cruel, complaining that the two children don't work for the food she cooks them. They leave, and stake out in an abandoned bomb shelter to try to live on their own.

I think there is so much beauty and perfection in this animation. I love seeing the hand-drawn details, and the rich, striking backgrounds. I also think it just works perfectly for the serious, sullen, message. The firebombings would have just been action in any other movie, done with lots of special effects and flash. Seita's mother would have been gory and gross, not so much an emotional, painful scene. We don't have so many big, fancy things to focus on, and instead, we are able to focus on the story and plot, and the emotions that the characters are experiencing. Often, the movies I watch for this project are all image and sound and art, but lack a really engrossing or sensible plot. Here, the plot is the only thing we should focus on. The whole point is to convey this story, and to remove anything that might distract us from it.

Ebert writes, importantly, that "This film proves, if it needs proving, that animation produces emotional effects not by reproducing reality, but by heightening and simplifying it, so that many of the sequences are about ideas, not experiences" (Great Movies II, 182). The point of this film, and other animated films, is to force viewers to have emotions and focus on the plot. We are able to focus on the idea of war, not just the special effects of war movies, or the camerawork of war movies. It makes you think twice about our efforts to constantly make reality out of animation, be it CGI, video games, or Pixar films.

I never thought I would find myself so moved by or engrossed in an anime. But here I am. I could spend most of this post just listing moments that were beautiful or moving. Seita buying a hair comb for Setsuko, when money for food was tight. The two of them trapping fireflies to light their shelter at night, and burying them in the morning. Both of them running and playing together on the beach, forgetting, for a moment before an air raid siren, that they are living during wartime. I just love this movie. It's not really uplifting, but it is important.

Ebert says that it is one of the best, most powerful war films, and I agree. It's not often we see a war film that focuses on children instead of soldiers or society. It's such a small story about two people, who suffer needlessly and cannot help themselves. But it is almost a true story (Ebert mentions the movie is a based on a book, where the author's young sister died of starvation during this time, and he felt responsible for her death), and it is a powerful story. Ebert says that no one has really seen this film, which is probably true. Oddly enough, my anime-hating self and Anthony have both seen it before (he saw it in high school). Still, I imagine most people have not seen this film, and you need watch it. It's so unique and beautiful, just absolutely incredible.

Have any of you seen Grave of the Fireflies? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Ebert's Great Movie Essay on Grave of the Fireflies
Buy it at Amazon

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