Grave of the Fireflies
Title: Grave of the Fireflies
Genre: Anime, Drama
Director: Isao Takahata
That was the night I died.
I can't remember the last time I watched a film that was reputed to be a 'classic' and 'one of the best' and actually agreed with the critics. Certainly it's one of those few times I've been so moved by a film for which there's hope for more than a handful of people to have heard of it, which in itself is quite surprising given that it's a Japanese film set in WWII; a war in which most of the worlds English speaking population were on the opposite side of, but it's strength is not in pointing out blame. If not for the distinctive Japanese scenery this is a tale that could easily have been set anywhere else, with nameless countries fighting an unknown enemy. It never feels even the slightest bit “anti-Western,” but simply anti-war, and even that sentiment never feels pushed on you, instead feeling like more of an inevitable consequence of the story being told.
From the opening shot of the dying teenager, keeled over in rags and too tired to move from the slump he's sitting in at a busy train station, slowly whithering away into lifelessness, it becomes apparent that this isn't to be an easy journey. Seita is the teenager from this opening shot, and it quickly falls onto him to look after his little sister of about four, Setsuko, when a devastating air raid demolishes his hometown and claims the life of his mother. With his father in the Navy and fighting at sea, he sees little choice but to travel to his Aunt's house, only as he quickly discovers the war has taken its toll on her as well. With rationing already stretched beyond its limits, she becomes bitter at the lack of food to be shared between them all, and following an argument Seita decides to leave for the refuge of the air raid shelter; a small wooden shelter embedded in the side of a cave. Having already sold all their worldly possessions for food, Seita begins to get desperate and starts stealing to survive, but it isn't long before the hunger begins to set in and he realises just how malnourished his little sister has become.
Almost all films that have an anti-war message in them somewhere show the actual war itself, but Grave of the Fireflies never needs to. When wars are waged people die – that's an inevitability – but the soldiers aren't the only ones who endure hardships, and it is those that are forgotten and left behind that form the core of this film. The families of those affected whether it be simply through rationing of a rapidly diminishing supply of food or through the loss of loved ones, family members going off to war and workers flocking to the factory to support the troops; the cold harshness of their Aunt doesn't feel implausible given her own situation. Not only with teenagers of her own, but struggling to maintain a household's order on limited rations stretched further by the addition of two new mouths she with good conscience can't turn away. And this is the story that is told throughout, a depressing tale given impact by the fact that nothing feels exaggerated, emphasised, or indeed anything other than completely honest. If anything the director should be accused of spending his time struggling to find every drop of happiness that is to be found, squeezing it out and putting on display, framing it for as long as possible on the faces of our two protagonists.
This turbulence of emotions despite the overwhelmingly sad setting and the human manner the two react to their situation is what gives this film it's emotional weight. The fact that Seita isn't some snivelling child but a young man in way out of his depth and doing everything in his power to survive, and that his little four year old sister behaves as you would expect a four year old to, both crying and needing comforting and yet also able to demonstrate a resilience that can surprise you; afraid of her brother leaving her and yet emotionally attached enough to him to not want to burden him any more than she has to. And despite all the hardships that the characters face, there is ultimately a bittersweet message of hope that once the ordeal is over, they can once more be together. It was almost half a year ago Roger Ebert wrote “If "Toy Story 3" makes you cry, you may not be ready for "Grave of the Fireflies",” and quite frankly he was right. This is, if not the most heart wrenching film I've seen, almost certainly the animated film most likely to make the most cold-hearted of men blubber where they sit. It may still sit proudly on my shelf, causing a tear every time my gaze is caught by it in memory of their plight, but I can't help but wonder just how long it'll be before I can bear to endure the heartbreak all over again.