Grave of the Fireflies ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies is one of the most heartbreaking and beautifully crafted films of all time. The film follows the lives and struggles of two orphaned children during World War II. Their father is fighting in the navy whilst their mother is killed in a bombing raid leaving the older brother, Seita, to take care of himself and his four-year old sister, Setsuko.

The story explores the strength of the human spirit during times of struggle and the utter desperation the two feel when they are greeted with an indifferent nation wrapped up in the war effort. Whilst the ongoing war frames their story the film remains firmly focused on the children, their unwavering bond and the inspiring determination both characters have in the face of great hardship.

Its great strength comes from revealing the fate of the siblings at the very beginning of the story. It opens with the death of a malnourished and alone Seita as his spirit is reunited with his deceased sister. It is their shared journey that acts as a framing device as the film flashbacks to the events that lead to their tragic reunion. Traditional wisdom would suggest such information would dilute the drama yet every scene is framed with the knowledge that any moment of happiness or personal triumph is fleeting and ultimately doomed.

It is this framing device that provides the film with its immense emotional power. Simple sequences of the two siblings playing on the beach or sharing a seemingly insignificant personal connection is shadowed by the knowledge of what awaits. Every moment, be it enjoying the last fruit drop or creating bubbles in a bath is tinged with bittersweet sadness. It is often in these smaller contemplative moments that the film’s power is revealed as the audience realise how young and ill-prepared both the characters truly are.

The siblings, through stubbornness and an indifferent society, are cut off from the rest of the world. Adults are either callous or consumed with their own troubles to care for the orphans. Their hard aunt is cold and uses the children’s rationing to feed herself and her daughter and when they try and fend for themselves they find themselves outside of the system without any chance of support. They constantly make a series of poor decisions that will lead to inevitable tragedy yet are incapable of changing their course.

The film’s major sequences (such as the deaths of their mother and Setsuko) are genuinely heartbreaking yet Takahata handles these scenes with welcome restraint and little sentimentality. Despite their emotive content there is a directness to their portrayal whether it be the mother’s unceremonious funeral or the simple yet devastating line - “She never woke up again.” The final moments are particularly harrowing as all hope is lost.

It's an interesting way to tackle the most emotive scenes in the film but it offers a more accurate portrayal of death during wartime. Neither child would have been afforded the opportunity to grieve properly for their mother as the war effort continued around them whilst the relative haste of these sequences further accentuates the smaller, insignificant scenes as being vital to understanding the characters and their relationship.

There is a particularly telling scene in the film that is mirrored with a sequence in Hayao Miyazaki’s wonderful, My Neighbour Totoro (both films were shown theatrically as a double-bill in Japan). Setsuko follows a crab along the beach, playfully impersonating its snipping claws. However, as she follows the crab it leads her to discover a corpse left on the beach. This is contrasted with a scene in My Neighbour Totoro when Mei, the film’s young protagonist, follows a creature that leads her to the discovery of the eponymous Totoro. Both characters are of a similar age yet in one film they discover the horrifying reality around them and in the other they are provided with a fantastical escape from their everyday lives.

It is hard to imagine that the story would have the same impact if it had not been animated. Animation is traditionally the preserve of family films and featuring neat happy endings yet Grave of the Fireflies turns this notion on its head. This is an unflinching and heart-wrenching story that pulls no punches. The animation also perfectly captures the nuances and mannerisms of children making it far more believable than many live action films. Coupled with pitch-perfect vocal performances (it is a film that must be experienced with the original Japanese audio track) it makes for an emotionally affecting experience like no other.

Grave of the Fireflies is a masterpiece and even the most cynical of viewers will be moved by the plight of the doomed siblings in this shocking, tender and devastating story of love and war.

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