director Isao Takahata
I’d long known that Grave of the Fireflies was considered one of the great Japanese animated films, and I’d long had plans to see it or have had it lodged in my queue. I’d even considered watching it with the kids before, but wasn’t sure how dark or depressing or inappropriate it might be. Craving variety, I finally pushed it to the top for us.
Adapted from a semi-autobiographical account of the hard times in Japan at the end of WWII, Grave of the Fireflies follows a teenage boy and his young sister as they struggle for survival in a war-ravaged country. The animation style is very beautiful, featuring a very “illustrated” style, telling a mostly very naturalistic story. When their town in firebombed the boy and girl lose their mother (their father is away in the Japanese navy) and they are forced to move in with a very ungrateful, not terribly close aunt and her family. The beauty of the countryside, the fireflies, the rice paddies, the ocean, are all somewhat blighted by death already. When living with the aunt becomes untenable, they move to an abandoned bomb shelter and live on their own terms but with virtually no food.
It doesn’t turn out well. But you kind of know that from the beginning, an opening sequence in which the brother dies of malnutrition in a busy train station, approaching his sister in a spiritual plane, all before the main narrative begins. The kids said that they liked the movie pretty well but it was “too sad”, which is not entirely off target. It’s a tragic reality of the world, not a crazy madcap adventure.
It struck me that this film, coming from 1988, emanated from a period in which feature-length Japanese animation, anime or not, showed a broader content base, from this mostly naturalistic historical film to the soft fantasies of Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro (1988) to the highly influential Akira (1988). Still all traditional cel animation, but a remarkable trio of varying narrative styles and content, seemed to hearken of a renaissance of Japanese animated feature films. Outside of Miyazaki, I wonder if this promise was truly ever met.
It’s quite a beautiful film, though slow and ultimately tragic.