Paul Lister’s review published on Letterboxd:
"September 21, 1945... that was the night I died. "
August 25, 2015...that was the night my heart died all over again. It has been many years since I first watched Isao Takahata's 'Grave of the Fireflies'. At the time I was discovering the works of Studio Ghibli mainly through the brushstrokes of Hayao Miyazaki, a more fantastical and adventurous director in comparison to Takahata who is more of a humanist in style. So with that in mind 'Fireflies' was an experience that knocked me back a little, not only is it the most realistic and heartbreaking films the Studio would ever make (hopefully there is still a chance they will make more films), it is also one of the most touching and harrowing films made about the impact of war, a film that once watched can never be forgotten, a film that you could be forgiven for not rushing to rush back to!
So here I am again, it has been ten years gone since I discovered this film, ten years since my heart first bled for Seita and Setsuko, the two innocent, young children so desperately caught in the cruel machinations of the adult world. If ever their were a symbol to build an anti-war statement around it surely would be the impact on the innocent, most certainly to the young and defenseless such as Seita and Setsuko. Seita is the eldest, whilst Setsuko is only five years old, finding thrills and fascinations as all children do in the smallest of things, most especially the glowing fireflies depicted in the film. They are brother and sister to a father fighting in the Navy and a mother soon to be killed in one of the many air raids committed by the American Air Forces. Left to fend for themselves, the two try to make the best they can, taking shelter with a distant who become increasingly infuriated with their presence. The adults in the film are shown as contemptible and selfish, seeing these two children as pests with nothing to contribute to the war effort, failing to see what is so clearly obvious, they are children. It is sickening to see the two forced into a position as precarious as the one they end up in because of the actions of adults in both the wider aspects of war and the community they are apart of.
The film is made all the more heartbreaking knowing as we do from the start that these two children do not survive. What we get is a story told as one long flashback told from Seita's spirit. It is made even more hard to take as the relationship between the two is filled with such warmth and caring. Seita being the elder is also the more responsible and the love for his sister see's him provide for her the best he can, whether it is food, shelter or a simple distraction from the horrors that have been forced upon them. One of the most devastating moments between them comes with Setsuko buries the dead fireflies as it is how she imagines her mother's body to be buried, as she scoops the fireflies into the hole she has made for them we quick cut of dead bodies being piled into mass graves. Another moment we see an ailing Setsuko, increasingly incomprehensible due to malnutrition, she has made rice balls out of mud for Seita, seemingly unaware that they are in fact made of mud at all, Seita cannot hold back the tears, he knows his sister is passing beyond the realms of help that he could possibly provide. It is simply a moment you do not forget, tragic is not even the word, it is incomprehensible that such things ever happened at all.
'Grave of the Fireflies' is a film that any director of animation or of live action cinema would be proud of, it does not exploit the situation they are in, it doesn't make fancy, flashy sequences out of the air raids, it doesn't make the film any more graphic than it needed to be but at the same time the images are tough to bare even for an animated effort, the dying mother wrapped in bandages, the bodies being piled into graves, the simple fact we see a child die right before our eyes. It isn't exploitative, it is necessary to show the impact that the war and the decisions of adults have on the world of children, a world that should be incorruptible, nourished and protected that has been cruelly neglected. You're heart will die a slow death watching the inevitable fate of these children, the warmth they display for each other only making it more powerful in the end. Isao Takahata is rightly lauded as one of the great directors of animated films, maybe a little in the shadow of Miyazaki but occupying a more humanist approach to Hayao's fantastical approach. The two masters together have supplemented the greatest animation studio of all time, one that is in danger of becoming a relic but if Studio Ghibli no longer continue to makes films under that banner their names will live on as does the memory of the souls lost to the cruelties of war.