Grave of the Fireflies came as a real shocker in times, when Japanese animation studios produced tons of rather ‘interesting’ material, such as erotic and brutal anime, cartoons about robots and the supernatural, or simple heart-warming tales for children.
Isao Takahata was able to create a truly tragic tale about how two young siblings struggle to survive during the War, but present it in such a way, that may be very easily called beautiful, in its own subtle sense. I mean, the visual side of this animated picture is so stunning that even time doesn’t concern it. It looks as fresh in 2012 as it did when it first came out in 1988.
Even though the depicted story happens on the eve of World War II, it doesn’t actually present the disastrous effects that it had on the Japanese community as such. It’s rather a tale of lost youth, and how the overwhelming cruelty and hatred can affect children and change their peaceful lives into a living hell. Those harmful and pure little creatures are afflicted by the selfish conflicts of grown-ups in the most striking way, and that shall be the power of the message that the movie provides.
The film starts with a scene that actually indicates how this gruesomely sad story will end. Setsuko is dying on a railway station and nobody cares to help him. After a while he is reunited with his little sister as a ghost. He is now the narrator and we see the whole picture through the eyes of his vivid memories. From now on every sequence accompanied by a flaming red aura is the one, where out of this world experiences melt with reality.
From the moment their mother died after an air raid, Setsuko and Seita are left totally alone in this vicious battle for survival. With nowhere else to go they decide to stay in their aunt’s house. However, as we quickly find out, she isn’t very happy about that and she does almost everything to discourage the kids and thus delicately persuade them to work and earn money for their own food, or simply leave her house.
After discovering an abandoned shelter nearby they realize that the only wise choice is to move there and strive to endure on their own terms. Unfortunately, as they soon find out, it isn’t easy in these hard war times. They can’t work, their money supply is about to end, they don’t have anything to exchange, and they’re soon accused of stealing crops. What’s more, Seita is getting weaker every day, because of malnutrition. The situation seems really terrible. How can two innocent kids be able to get along without any support?
The sudden transition that Setsuko and Seita undergo is presented in a very realistic manner. It’s very rare to see such a truthful representation of a child’s suffering and agony in a movie, much less in an animated production. Their emotions are very real. The way they gradually learn to understand their situation is convincing, and most saddening.
I previously mentioned that the movie could certainly be called a thing of beauty, due to its perfect visual presentation. Here’s why: it’s somehow idyllic, because even though there are signs of war everywhere around (the sirens, air raids, burnt houses and corpses), most of the time we see the two main characters staying in a dream-like hideout place, surrounded by untouched nature and jolly fireflies. In those (very brief) moments when they tend to forget about their problems, it is as if the viewer suddenly changed the movie for a more joyful one. But then the mood changes 180 degrees and we are back in the horrible times of war.
Most people like to call the movie a tearjerker, and this statement can’t be undermined. But there can also be a different approach to The Grave of the Fireflies. As much as heartbreaking and mournful it is, Isao Takahata shows that even an anime movie can be as graphic as a feature film. It’s not easy to watch the story, but it’s enormously pleasant to watch the movie. Those are two different things. And this achievement should put a smile on the face of any movie fanatic.