Original Release: 16th April 1988
Director(s): Isao Takahata
Producer(s): Toru Hara
Screenwriter(s): Isao Takahata
Apologies, we’re late again with this entry. In truth though, neither of us could stomach watching this one over the weekend. Released as a double feature with the next film in our series, the two couldn’t be more different. Grave of the Fireflies is a wonderful film – another moving tale by Takahata – but a truly heart-wrenching one. If you believe animation – and indeed Japanese anime – is just for children, this film will change your mind completely.
Based on a semi-autographical short story written in 1967 by Akiyuki Nosaka, Grave of the Fireflies tells the story of two siblings – Seita and his younger sister Setsuko – and their desperate struggle to survive during the final days of Japan’s involvement in World War II.
Air raids are a constant threat: In one of early scenes, much of the siblings’ city, Kobe, is completely levelled by a ‘firebombing’ raid by US B-29 Superfortress bombers. The raid on Kobe was the first such use of incendiary bombs in the offensive against Japan, and here, the innocuous burning shrapnel quickly turns the wooden city into a horrifying raging inferno.
The hardships faced by the community affect their attitudes and – especially once rationing is introduced – we see a society torn apart as individuals try to survive by any means necessary. Those contributing to the war effort are ultimately prioritised and the siblings’ Aunt, in particular, favours her daughter and lodger over the children whom she feels don’t do enough to earn their keep.
Grave of the Fireflies is a graphic film. Destruction, assault, disease, mass graves, and malnutrition, are all evident here. There are horrors here that no children should have to face and the film – indeed Seita himself – don’t shy away from these. He endures for Setsuka’s sake and wears his mask of optimism and confidence as big brother throughout.
Amidst the despair, there are fleeting moments of joy and the rural idyll. The playful innocence of Setsuka is light relief and the flashbacks to their earlier childhood before the war bittersweet. As siblings, they share many endearing moments together. The game in the bathtub and the catching of the fireflies of the title are a particular highlight.
This isn’t a film that glamorises war. We see little of the actual fighting itself, rather the film focuses on the effects of the conflict on the civilians left at home. There’s actually a strong anti-war message here despite Takahata denying such in interviews. While Seita looks up to his absent father, a naval officer, and sings pro-military songs initially, there’s an overwhelming feeling of abandonment and hopelessness caused by the war that grows throughout.
I have to say this film is my favourite by Isao Takahata, if such a distressing story can be considered as such. In the same way that Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) is widely considered a cultural masterpiece, I feel similar acclaim is justified here. It’s a bold, beautiful film with a tender, deeply human, story.
Next up: Let’s cheer ourselves up with a wonderfully exciting adventure full of quirky wood spirits and – who can forget? – a cosy, cute, CATBUS!