Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no haka)

Moments of delight amidst the horrors of war.

Moments of delight amidst the horrors of war.

(1988) Animated Feature (GKIDS) Starring the voices of Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi, Yoshiko Shinohara, Akemi Yamaguchi, J. Robert Spencer (English version), Corinne Orr (English version), Amy Jones (English version), Veronica Taylor (English version), Crispin Freeman (English version), Nick Sullivan (English version), Dan Green (English version), George Leaver (English version), Shannon Conley (English version). Directed by Isao Takahata

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The horrors of war don’t begin and end on the battlefield. War effects everyone, not just the combatants. Sometimes the worst aspects of war are felt at home.

In the waning days of World War II Seita (Tatsumi/Spencer), a teenage boy and his four-year-old sister Setsuko (Shiraishi/Orr) live in the port town of Kobe in Japan. American bombers are a common sight and when they come to Kobe, they come bearing napalm. The city, mostly built of paper and timber, burns like a firecracker. Their mother (Shinohara/Taylor) is badly burned and eventually succumbs to her grievous injuries. They go to live with their aunt (Yamaguchi/Jones).

However, as food shortages become acute, their aunt becomes more and more indifferent to their plight, raging against their inability to “earn” what she cooks and after they sell their mother’s kimono and buy rice with it, keeps the lion’s share of the rice for herself. Seita and Setsuko decide to strike out on their own and find a nice hillside cave to take shelter in.

Although Seita has some money from his mother, enough to buy food, there is no food to be bought and he is reduced to thieving and scrounging. As the children slowly starve however, they manage to find moments of delight – a gaggle of fireflies that light up the cave one night, or playing with air bubbles in a local river. But the need for food to survive trumps all and the children are in dire straits. Can Seita find a way to keep them both alive?

The answer to that question comes at the very beginning of the movie. I won’t spoil it for you here but most of the movie takes place as an extended flashback, and the viewer’s knowledge of the fate of the children colors the entire film. Grave of the Fireflies is one of the most powerful emotional experiences that has ever been committed to celluloid, something that stays with you and haunts you long after the film ends. Many critics, as jaded moviegoers as can possibly be, who see the movie speak of being moved to tears and being unable to watch it a second time, although they are near universal with their praise.

The animation here is beautiful and occasionally delightful even though the subject is grim (having a child watch his mother’s burned, maggoty corpse being carted away is something Pixar is unlikely to ever display) it is startlingly breathtaking looking at the bombs, flying down from the sky trailing cloth streamers, or the fireflies dancing in the cave, or the children making play food out of mud.

It has been described as maybe the ultimate anti-war movie and while the director has objected strenuously to that depiction, referring to it as more of a relationship film between the brother and sister, the effect is nonetheless very much about the stark and brutal realities of war regardless of the director’s intentions. You cannot watch the plight of these children and be unmoved.

The reason for that is because both Seita and Setsuko are more than just cartoon characters in a literal sense; they are given personalities that make the tragedy all the more awful. While some complain about Japanese anime as being too cutesy (a charge that isn’t without merit), despite the gigantic eyes and tiny mouths that is characteristic of the art form, these children remain unforgettable, indelible images that will haunt you weeks after you see it.

Some may be hesitant to see this movie because I’m making it sound like an endurance test in watching it and that’s not the case, not really. Certainly it will tap into powerful emotions and some may find that to be uncomfortable. However, it is certainly a film that is experienced rather than watched; you cannot simply passively sit on your couch and dismiss the movie half an hour after it’s over. It demands your immediate and intimate involvement and no matter who you are, it draws you in and forces you to feel. The catharsis of a movie like this is incalculable.

Some movies simply transcend the genres that are ascribed to them and become something different, something more – a human movie. Possibly because this was based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Nosaka Akiyuki whose sister did die of starvation during the war, and whose death has haunted him the rest of his life. His anguish is palpable in the novel and Takahata has managed to transcribe that anguish to the screen. This is a movie everyone should experience at some time in their lives.

NOTE: It should be noted that the movie is currently out of print on both DVD editions although it is still available for sale on Amazon both in new and used formats. While the Blu-Ray was out of stock as of this writing, hopefully it will soon be back on the shelves and available for purchase.

WHY RENT THIS: Will create an emotional response in everyone. Beautifully crafted and animated. Powerful themes and thought-provoking concepts.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Dark themes may be too intense for some children.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes; may be too dark and intense for some children.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the only film adaptation of her work that Agatha Christie was ever truly satisfied with. She attended the premiere in 1974 and would die 14 months later in 1976.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Collector’s Edition DVD includes an interview with the late Roger Ebert on how the film succeeds where other films fail, as well as a round table discussion of the historical perspective of the war in 1945, the portrayal of the war in the film and how it reflected the facts of the times, and a look at the locations portrayed in the film and how they looked both then and now. The more remastered DVD edition doesn’t include these features but the overall look of the film is far superior, so make your choice accordingly.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Not currently available but will shortly be re-released), Amazon (not available), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wind Rises
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Far From the Madding Crowd

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