In recent years attitudes towards animation have shifted to accept animation as an art form that can cover any subject. But back in the 1980s the perception that if something was drawn it had to be a cartoon for children still stood. And yet, in 1988 director Isao Takahata adapted semi-autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, Grave Of The Fireflies, into one of the most harrowing movies ever made.
Set during the lead up to the end of World War II in Japan, Grave Of The Fireflies follows siblings Seita and Setsuko and their fight to survive after Allied firebombing of the city of Kobe destroys their home. Left to protect his 4-year-old sister after their mother succumbs to substantial burn injuries, teenage boy Seita struggles to make the best choices for him and his young sister, whilst also coping with a childhood prematurely ended. Relying on the goodwill of family is difficult when a nation is choked with scarce food and strict rationing, rendering money useless and human necessity as a drain on resources.
Grave Of The Fireflies pulls no punches at any point but even within the context of the film the first 20 minutes are unrelenting. Most other movies, animation or otherwise, would turn the camera away from certain details and let the implications hang heavy. Takahata chooses not to do this and the full horrifying devastation of the firebombing is laid painfully bare. Seita’s visit to his still-alive mother in the makeshift hospital is not shied away from. Her full body bandages are bloodsoaked, her voice raspy, and her chances of survival non-existent.
Seita and Setsuko’s struggle to survive takes the movie through a slowly descending arc of hope. There are moments of pure joy. The siblings live under the roof of their aunt who comes to resent their presence more and more, so when Seita discovers that he can withdraw some money and buy a small stove giving them the pretence of self-sufficiency, his happiness at cooking for them both gleams. Such buoyant feeling drives him to take Setsuko and set up camp in a small out of the way cave, where fireflies are abundant. Their joy at the glowing blanket of insects is a peak that you know will soon come tumbling down as Setsuko’s malnutrition weakens her physically and mentally with each passing day.
Even with such a painful subject matter, Takahata ensures that the animation emotes each scene in a way that live-action never could. The lows are so low and the highs soar high. Flourishes of dreamlike fantasy are weaved into the narrative to haunting and heart-breaking effect. A dark shot lit up with each footstep as if fireflies warm the character’s movements is something unnecessary for plotting, yet beautiful in what Grave Of The Fireflies does so well: enrapturing you with emotive artistry.
Despite being a war movie on the losing side, Takahata avoids making the movie political (beyond simply showing the real human cost of conflict). There is no heroism here, only survival. Seita is only ever motivated by trying to care for Setsuko, but his pain at the end of his own childhood to try and preserve hers is ultimately doomed. As Setsuko is so young, he becomes brother and father rolled into one: no time for his own emotions.
Takahata takes time to show these moments, such as when Setsuko cries as only a 4-year-old can and Seita stands silently away from her, only to say, “Hey, look what I can do!” and engage in energetic pull-ups in an effort to distract her. It’s no coincidence that a tin of sweet fruit drops is a central motif throughout: such simple pleasures are finite.
This is a gut-punch of a movie. Rather incredibly, it was released as a double bill along with the childhood masterpiece that is Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro and you can’t envy the cinemas who had to decide which way round to play the two movies. And yet this is no less a masterpiece. You may struggle to watch it more than a few times in your life, but with such powerful movie making Takahata created something unique and special. Grave Of The Fireflies will stay with you like a ghostly friend, its arm gently around your shoulder in sorrowful remembrance.
Words by Michael Record
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