Grave of the Fireflies

Grave of the Fireflies ★★★★★

This is part 5 of my Studio Ghibli retrospective.

As I describe in my review of My Neighbor Totoro, this film was originally released theatrically as the second part of a double-feature that opened with that film. It may seem unconscionable to follow such an idyllic, hopelessly optimistic cute kids' picture like My Neighbor Totoro with a brutally realistic wartime tragedy about two orphaned children struggling to survive. Artistically, however, I believe the tragedy of Grave of the Fireflies informs My Neighbor Totoro (as I describe in the afore-mentioned review).

In fact, I believe this film is a Rosetta Stone of sorts to Studio Ghibli's work. It puts into context in particular Hayao Miyazaki's obsession with the themes of the specter of war threatening doom on the land, violent conflicts between nature and man, and of children forced into journeys of self-discovery and maturity while parents are out of the picture. However, while Miyazaki generally safely sets his stories in fantasy worlds and is usually ambiguous about what horrors may have shaped these worlds or people, Isao Takahata gets directly to the heart of the matter with his Studio Ghibli debut.

Grave of the Fireflies is unashamedly, unflinchingly a tragedy. It opens with the harrowing line, "September 21, 1945, the night I died." It tells the story in flashback of two children, 14-year-old boy Seita and his 4-year-old sister Setsuko, who starve to death in Japan during the war. The original novel was written by Akiyuki Nosaka, and was a semi-autobiographical bildungsroman about the death of his sister during the war. The film weaves together thoughts, memories, and feelings from the past together in what is more of a tone poem than a narrative story. Especially on re-watches, where I haven't been distracted by the story, I've been able to just focus on the experiences that each scene recreates, from a collective past I'm too young to remember, and experience the guilt, the devastation of loss, the anger and frustration, and the love for the last person in the world who means anything.

There is a scene when Seita and Setsuko's aunt takes away their mother's kimonos to sell for rice. Setsuko begins throwing a fit, crying, "those are mom's!" In a quick transition that lasts less than a minute, we see Seita grab Setsuko and try to calm her, then the spirit of Seita in the present looking on, covering his ears to drown out the horrible sound of his sister's cries, then we see a happy memory of Seita, Setsuko, their mother and father all taking a photograph together under sakura trees (cherry blossom, or the ephemeral beauty and ultimate transcience of life), then we see falling sakura petals crossfade into rice being poured by the aunt, who cheerfully sold the last of their mother's possessions. Setsuko is still sad over the transaction, but Seita is delighted that they will be able to feed themselves. The scene beautifully combines mourning for the dead and celebrating the connection that it brings to the living, allowing the two children to continue to live. Sublime.

The film is full of subtle, deft touches like this. Most of them were lost on me the first time through, as I was overwhelmed by the emotion and drama of it. On this, my third viewing, what I appreciated most were these quiet details. Takahata is not as prodigiously gifted a visualist as Miyazaki, but in his own, humble way, he brings a stark reality to his characters that is unmatched by even his eminent colleague. The very best example of this is the montage at the end, probably the finest, most realistic, most empathetic animation to ever grace the cinema.

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