Tuesday, July 9, 2013

FI: Grave of the Fireflies

Grave of the Fireflies
Japan, 1988
Written and Directed by Isao Takahata

That Studio Ghibli is synonymous, here, with Hayao Miyazaki and his films is our loss. I mean no disrespect to Miyazaki, whose films I love, but the studio has produced a lot of other work that gets unfairly obscured by his shadow. Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies—based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka—is the first non-Miyazaki Ghibli film I've seen, and it's an amazing one. The story of fourteen-year-old Seita and his four-year-old sister Setsuko is one of the most desperately sad tales ever animated. Animation is often considered an art form for children—a debatable point at best—but that doesn't mean it can't deal with adult subject matter. Since the 1940's, much of Japan's art has dealt with the cognitive dissonance and physical/psychological scars left by the second World War, and animation is no different. Grave of the Fireflies puts a human face on these fixations.

The film begins at the end of WWII, with young Seita begging in a train station shortly before starving to death. A janitor finds a tin of fruit drops, filled with ashes, on Seita's body. He dumps the ashes in a field, then red-glowing fireflies assemble and the spirits of Seita and Setsuko appear. Seita's spirit then guides us through the rest of the film, which depicts the siblings' life as they are essentially orphaned in the aftermath of the Allied firebombing of Kobe. For most Americans, wars remain a figurative construct, as no modern foreign war has ever brought sustained combat to our land. We've never had to suffer the deprivations, the indignities, the trauma, or the profound sense of loss that Seita and Setsuko experience. It remains unreal to us even though we've witnessed it happening elsewhere and even inflicted it on others in countless conflicts. There were and are Seitas and Setsukos living, suffering, and dying every day in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. That the film shows moments of joy, of beauty, of tenderness and abiding love is little consolation; the sweetness only heightens the bitterness by contrast. A beautiful-looking film about innocence protected, lost, and, perhaps, regained at the very highest cost, Grave of the Fireflies is not to be missed.


  1. This was the first Studio Ghibli film I saw. A coworker at the video store passed it to me saying, "You're kinda goth. You'd probably _like_ this." (I didn't quite get the weird emphasis until later.) I was honestly a little anxious about watching Miyazaki's stuff because I thought if it was anything like GotF I wasn't sure my heart could take it.

    PS: Good to see you blogging again!

    1. Thanks! I'm trying, though I won't always be posting EVERY day. It's just worked out that way so far ;)

      And yeah, Miyazaki has some sadness, but nothing compared to this. He's never quite as realistic as GotF, where the mystical/spiritual stuff is fairly contained. Miyazaki can be almost as pointed, but he tends to attack metaphorically or through genre. This is, well, a gutpunch all the way.