A hard-hitting, harrowing and realistic portrayal of a young brother and sister suffering the ravages of Japan’s losing World War II ordeal. A film that Roger Ebert calls one of the best and most powerful war films ever made, included on his 2000 list of the “Great Movies.” A film that’s been remade twice, having only been released in 1988. And yet, it’s hard to find, and hardly ever screened. In short, a classic. But no Spielberg drama, nor the sturm und drang of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. This film is Grave of the Fireflies, one of the best anime movies ever made. Yep, it’s a cartoon. Pull the cord with me and I’ll fill you in on the way down, after the jump.
Grave of the Fireflies was made by Japan’s brilliant animation house Studio Ghibli, home to renowned director Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away). Directed by Isao Takahata, the film is based on a semi-autobiographical novel written by Akiyuki Nosaka. The book details Nosaka’s own struggles as a youth during the war, and his survivor’s guilt for making it through while his sister did not. Bleak stuff, and the movie runs with it, opening with the fourteen-year-old brother, Seita, dying of starvation, neglected and alone in a busy subway station. “Another one,” a janitor says, poking Seita’s lifeless body before searching his things. He finds an almost empty tin of candy by the body, but nothing of value inside its rattling interior, so he chucks the can outside, into the reeds. It’s a shocking beginning for an animated film, but it transforms immediately, the night shifting to a mysterious saturated red as bright yellow fireflies lift up from the tall grass. The ghost of the young sister Setsuko appears, and she’s shocked and worried, but Seita’s spirit materializes beside her, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder. Together they walk off to revisit their lives, and how they arrived at this point.
We flash back to the spring of 1945, when the Allies are fire-bombing the harbour city of Kobe. Residents run in fear as the alarm sounds and the first rumble of bombers is heard overhead, and soon cans of burning gasoline are whistling down on the houses of wood and rice-paper, a devastating combination. Seita is charged with looking after his four-year-old sister Setsuko and gathering their things, as his mother hurries to a shelter. They’re waylaid by the falling explosives, but make it to safety. After the attack, Seita is astonished by the blasted and charred ruins of his city, captured in roiling waves of red and grey as black rain falls. They make it to the shelter, but their mother’s been terribly burned, and lies swathed in red seeping bandages in a makeshift clinic in a school. Unsurprisingly, she doesn’t last long. Not wanting Setsuko to find out, Seita takes her to stay with their aunt. Welcoming at first, their aunt quickly cools once she learns their mother is dead. As rations become more strict, she resents their hungry mouths and carefree youth.
They’re not exactly carefree, but Setsuko and Seita are young kids, and in spite of the harsh conditions they do play together, embarking on their own amusing adventures. The film is punctuated by beautiful light vignettes, like when Seita spins on a high-bar to distract his worried sister, or when he drinks from a broken water main, the fractured pipe gushing water and obscuring his face as he douses himself. They chase each other on the beach, but the spectre of war is always near. Setsuko follows a small crab that leads her to an inert body hidden under a bamboo mat. “Don’t look at that,” Seita commands, and pulls her away, promising Setsuko he’ll teach her to swim when she’s older.
Rationing is the harsh reality of their existence. Seita tries to write to his father in the Japanese navy, but never receives a reply. The civilians are in the dark as to how badly the nation is faring. Seita gives the aunt his mother’s kimonos to sell for money to buy food. She does, but keeps half the food for her side of the family, eventually forcing Seita and Setsuko to eat separately and prepare their own meals. Finally they’re forced out of the house due to Setsuko’s crying at night. As they walk aimlessly, an air raid siren drives them into the nearby woods, where they find an abandoned shelter. They decide to live there, bringing all their remaining things and leaving the aunt. An old farmer nearby helps them out with some limited supplies and they fix up the shelter to be rustically habitable. Setsuko is scared of the darkness in the shelter at night. They catch some fireflies and let them loose inside the mosquito netting to give them illumination. As the fireflies flit across the nets, Seita tells Setsuko about seeing dad’s ship in the harbour, the light of the insects merging to take shape into the yellow of the ship’s lights as it sails, drifting across the city. It’s a beautiful and inventive passage. Of course, in the morning the short-lived fireflies have all died. Setsuko buries them, revealing to Seita she knows their mother, too, has been buried.
And so it goes, both beautiful and achingly sad. Because the film is animated it can be unflinching in a way that would be harder for a live-action drama. Surrounded by death and destruction, these children have impossibly difficult lives. Still, they share moments of laughter and joy, and Seita is Setsuko’s unwavering comfort, even as she begins to fade from malnutrition. When they’re first left on their own, early in the film, he gives her a tin of hard candy. She treasures it, doling the sweets out sparingly as circumstances overtake them. When she dies, a heart-broken Seita cremates her, and keeps some of her ashes in the tin, the very one that janitor flings into the weeds at the film’s beginning. Seita’s tragedy is that he can’t save Setsuko, as much as he wants to, nor can he even save himself. Our tragedy is knowing how real the story is, and knowing that it’s unfolding still, exactly the same, in places the world over. Powerful and affecting, Grave of the Fireflies shows that animation too can have great dramatic range. Its surprising realism gives the film its emotional heft, while the always inventive illustration burns its images into your brain. It’s a one-of-a-kind film, and maybe that’s a good thing.
Grave of the Fireflies is showing as part of TIFF’s series on the works of Studio Ghibli. It’s screening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Friday, December 20th at 6:30pm, and again on Wednesday, January 1st at 6:30pm. For scheduling and ticket info, see here.