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Grave of the Fireflies (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on August 26, 2012

[Note: this review was written on August 3, 2012.  For the story behind it, read this]

The film begins with the protagonist, Seita, telling us: “September 21, 1945. That was the night I died.”  With these brief words, we understand much.  It is after the war, but not so far removed that the effects are still not felt.  And we immediately know – Sunset Boulevard-style – that our main character will meet his end.  And what an untimely end it is, because he is a young boy, perhaps not even a teenager.  And he is dying alone, forgotten, and starving in squalor.  Around him, the country is trying to move on, ashamed of his presence there reminding them of recent horrors and defeat.

Things become even more grim as Seita perishes before our eyes and we drift into flashback… and we realize that he has a younger sister, Setsuko.  She is a cherubic girl of roughly 4 or 5, filled with laughter and curiosity, and we are acutely aware that she was not in that dire opening image.  With the tone set by the intro, we watch Seita guide Setsuko through the final months of the war, uncomfortably wondering how and when she will be separated from her older brother.

Seita does his best to shield Setsuko from the terrible realities of their situation.  He makes mistakes, bad decisions.  Of course he does, he is a child.  The dynamic of kids fending for themselves in adult situations is not new (see also Night of the Hunter or Forbidden Games) but it’s always refreshing when a film allows the children to have the wisdom of children and not be preternaturally equipped for the occasion.  Seita has a hard enough time just attending to Setsuko’s primal human needs, which she vocalizes as a child is wont to do – I am hungry, I need to pee, there’s something in my eye.  Just acquiring basic nutritional sustenance is difficult for a child with no resources, especially during wartime rationing.  Most of what he knows about the world is gleaned from overheard conversations.  To expect him to properly gauge and navigate complex adult social dynamics is asking too much.  One should not criticize Seita too harshly for his lapses in judgment, but understand that he never should have been put in that situation in the first place.  Such is the devastating cost of war, and no country – aggressor or not – should have to suffer it.

It’s been quite some time – over 10 years – since I last watched Grave of the Fireflies.  It’s not a movie your heart yearns to return to.  No, it’s not as bluntly horrifying as other Japanese films about the awful damage of the war… say, Ichikawa’s brutal Fires on the Plain, the earlier anime Barefoot Gen, or Imamura’s bleak Black Rain.  You are not constantly being pummeled with disturbing imagery.  But always a cloud of doom lingers over the picture, the tragic fate tainting even the sweetest of moments (and sometimes in the actuality of the narrative as well, as when Setsuko discovers a corpse on an otherwise joyous trip to the beach).  A montage of a little girl playfully amusing herself becomes one of the saddest things you’re likely to see.

Studio Ghibli is spoken about in respectful, loving terms, and rightfully so.  The animation house is known for producing original, emotionally resonant and often charming works with universal appeal (“anime for people who don’t like anime” is a common phrase).  The name most readily associated with Ghibli is Hayao Miyazaki, whose films – mostly superb, intricate, offbeat adventures – make up almost half of the studio’s output.  But one might forget that Fireflies, although one of Ghibli’s most renowned, is not a Miyazaki movie.  It’s the first Ghibli feature by Isao Takahata.  Takahata’s future Ghibli productions would become increasingly lighter in tone, from the nostalgic Only Yesterday to the oddball fantasy Pom Poko to the comic strip-esque My Neighbors the Yamadas.  It’s no wonder that after Fireflies, he would want to move further away from such mournful material.

The animation is of consistently high quality, emphasizing the nuances of movement, particularly human physicality.  Setsuko doesn’t shake a candy tin the same way Seita does.  Her short limbs, still plump with baby fat, operate as one expects short, fat limbs to move.  The images are sometimes disturbing, sometimes beautiful, and always artful.  We don’t need it pointed out to us that the fireflies are reminiscent of the firebombs that so profoundly influenced Saito’s life… it is inherently present in the images.  Scenes in one time will bleed and blend into moments from other times, an elegant merging of a pleasant memory with a harsher one.  Takahata’s Only Yesterday demonstrates a distinct Ozu influence, and you can see traces of it here as well, in the use of “pillow shots” to transition between scenes.

One advantage of animation over live action is control over performances.  Child actors can be problematic, coming off as too precious, too precocious, or just plain annoying.  Here we have two children who, despite being pencil and paint renditions, feel natural and alive and behave as children do.  The vocal performances are suitably childlike without being grating.

The music is occasionally too twee and tinkly, undermining the subtlety of the narrative with emotional button-pushing, but in general it’s done with restraint.  There is a heartbreaking usage of Amelita Galli-Curci’s “Home Sweet Home” near the end.

The film as a whole usually manages to sidestep cheap sentimentality.  It is sentimental, but in ways that rarely feel manipulative or unearned.  It is matter-of-fact (but not distant) about the events unfolding.  Grandiose, sweeping drama is not required, the sorrowful truth of it is embedded in the small gestures, in the love Seita has for Setsuko, and his struggle to perform in the parental role thrust upon him, unfair as unfair can be.  It may or may not move you to tears, but it should stir something up within you.  Rating: Very Good (86)


3 Responses to “Grave of the Fireflies (rewatch)”

  1. This is a fantastic review. I’ve always enjoyed Studio Ghibli’s films. I have this one on my Movie Bucket List.

  2. […] Martin Teller’s Movie Reviews […]

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