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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The Wind Rises (Kaze tachinu)


Jiro dreams of airplanes.

Jiro dreams of airplanes.

(2013) Animated Feature (Touchstone/Studio Ghibli) Starring the voices of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Martin Short, Stanley Tucci, Mandy Patinkin, Mae Whitman, Werner Hertzog, Jennifer Grey, William H. Macy, Zach Callison, Madeleine Rose Yen, Eva Bella, Edie Mirman, Elijah Wood, Darren Criss. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

The French poet Paul Valery wrote in 1922 “The wind is rising, we must try to live.” As with most symbolist poems, the concept can be taken in a lot of different ways.

Jiro Horikoshi (Gordon-Levitt) is a young man who has dreamed of airplanes ever since he was a schoolboy (Callison). He had dreams in which his idol, Italian aeronautical engineer Count Giovanni Caproni (Tucci) shows him fantastic creations filled with family and friends, floating above endless sunlit grassy plains and meadows. In this dream kingdom shared by Caproni and Jiro, the wind blows ceaselessly. In fact, that wind blows through Jiro’s life events both tragic and wonderful.

As Jiro is travelling to university in Tokyo from a visit back home, the train he is riding in is stopped short when the Kanto earthquake of 1923 devastates Tokyo. He meets a young girl named Naoko (Blunt) who is travelling with her maid. Her maid breaks her leg in the incident and Jiro carries her back to Naoko’s home, along with Naoko. He leaves without giving the grateful family his name. When he goes back to inquire about the two girls, he discovers their home has burned to the ground in the fiery aftermath of the earthquake.

After graduating, Jiro gets a job at Mitsubishi along with his close friend Honjo (Krasinski). They work on a design for a plane commissioned by the Japanese Navy. The project is overseen by Kurokawa (Short), an unpleasant and energetic height-challenged person who turns out to be a pretty decent guy. Overseeing Kurokawa is the more kindly-natured Hattori (Patinkin).

The project ends up in failure but his superiors recognize that Jiro is a budding innovator and sends him to Germany to study their impressive efforts. Jiro, accompanied by Honjo, is disturbed by the increasing militarism of Germany and frustrated by their unwillingness to share anything but the most basic information. Jiro recognizes some of the same militarism emerging in his own country.

Once back Jiro is given another Navy plane project but on its test flight the plane crashes. Disheartened and exhausted, Jiro is sent by his concerned employers to recover at a mountain resort. In a bit of serendipity, it turns out  that the hotel is owned by Satomi (Macy), the father of Naoko who Jiro falls deeply in love with. However, she has contracted tuberculosis, a disease that also killed her mother. The outlook for Naoko looks bleak but in an effort to fight off the disease and get healthy, she agrees to go to an alpine clinic to get better.

In the meantime Jiro has resumed working on a radical new design that will make his planes lighter, more maneuverable and faster. However, his conversations with a German pacifist (Herzog) at the resort have attracted the attention of Japan’s secret police who want to take Jiro away – so Mitsubishi hides him at the home of Kurokawa and his wife (Grey). Naoko realizes she’s not getting any better so she decides to go to Jiro and marry him, spending whatever time she has left with the man she loves. While Jiro is realizing his dream to create beautiful aircraft, he is troubled by the eventual use of his planes, knowing that this militarism will eventually destroy his own country. However, he labors on, trying to get the most of his time with Naoko who encourages him even as she weakens.

First of all, this is a gorgeous movie with beautiful curved lines nearly everywhere. The aircraft portrayed in the movie are largely fantastic. Adding a bit of whimsy to the proceedings, nearly all of the mechanical sounds are made by humans, from the roar of the earthquake to the sputter of engines turning over. It’s a marvelous touch that is delightful to both young and old.

Unlike Ponyo which was aimed squarely at the very young, this is most certainly a movie for older audiences. It moves at a stately, majestic pace which the younger crowd will be far too restless to tolerate. In fact, some older audiences may have the same problem – the middle third of the movie is almost glacial as it moves from the terrifying earthquake/fire sequence to the love story.

There are those who are criticizing Miyazaki and the film because Jiro is designing a fighter plane that would be used to take lives (I thought mistakenly that it was the Zero that he was working on and while he did eventually design that plane, the one shown in the film is its predecessor the A5M. The movie does to an extent gloss over the carnage Jiro’s creations unleashed on the Allied forces in World War II. Left-leaners have tended to opine that Miyazaki should have at least criticized the militaristic nationalist leanings of Japan and questioned whether someone who designed weapons should be glorified with a feature film. Ironically, conservatives in Japan have labeled the movie “anti-Japanese.” What’s a venerable animator to do?

I find the criticism to be invalid. Miyazaki damns the militarism by showing its affects on Japanese society without making comment on it. He allows people to draw their own conclusion – the success of which can be inferred by the many differing opinions about the movie’s message. I have to admit that as an American I was very aware that the “beautiful machines” that Jiro was designing would be used to take American lives and that felt a little strange to me. I also found myself able to put that part of me aside and take the movie as a whole without allowing my prejudices to influence my ultimate opinion. War is a terrible thing, as some of the images near the end of the movie show – but Miyazaki recognizes that it is also the catalyst for technological advance.

The imagery is gorgeous, flowing and sweeping across the screen. The early scenes of early 20th century Japan are bucolic and lovely, the earthquake sequence terrifying and beautiful and the scenes at the resort pastoral and also lovely. The colors are bright and harmonize beautifully together and the score enhances the movie subtly. It is not Miyazaki’s best – I still think The Princess Mononoke is and Spirited Away and Kiki’s Delivery Service are both superior to this, but it is definitely up in their category. While I did like Frozen when I saw it late last year, this should have won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. Period.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeously rendered. Innovative and clever. Wonderful love story at the center of the film; Jiro is an amazing character.

REASONS TO STAY: Runs a little bit too long. Drags in the middle third a bit. Somewhat low-key.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some disturbing images of fantasy and war.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The 72-year-old Miyazaki initially announced that this would be his final animated feature but on December 31, 2013 he withdrew his retirement during an interview on a Japanese radio program. It is said he is considering a sequel to Ponyo as his next project.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/8/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Aviator

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: 3 Days to Kill