Director: Isao Takahata
Cast: Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi, Yoshiko Shinohara, Akemi Yamaguchi
MPAA Rating: No RatingLength: 89 minutes
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Why Must Fireflies Die So Young?
If you remember watching Bambi’s mother getting shot and the feelings that came with that – the holding of your breath, the pangs in your heart, the tears in your eyes – well loop those feelings for an hour and half and that’s basically what you feel like when you watch Grave of the Fireflies.
Requiem for a Dream, Schindler’s List, and only a few other films in the history of filmmaking could be considered as depressing as this movie. The story, based off real life events, follows two orphaned children in Japan during the final months of World War 2. Even though viewers will know how the film ends 60 seconds into watching it, Grave of the Fireflies will still devastate you.
Grave of the Fireflies is based off the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by Akiyuki Nosaka. Set in Japan during the closing years of World War 2, fourteen year old Seita and his five year old sister, Setsuko, are forced to fend for themselves after their home is bombed and they are without their parents.
Director Isao Takahata has gone on record stating this is not an anti-war film. I really don’t see how you couldn’t feel anti-war after seeing this. Watching two children suffer for an hour and a half, where nearly all their suffering is caused by war, isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement. Grave of the Fireflies unmercifully depicts what happens to the common man (or children in this case) during a time of war. The point being, there is a lot of anti-war sentiment here.
The character development in this film is brilliant. Seita, who is in the transitional stage of becoming an adult, is immediately forced into the role when he has to care for his much younger sister. Whenever Seita’s with Setsuko, he displays an optimism that’s on par with the character Guido Orefice’s optimism from Life is Beautiful. Setsuko acts every bit the toddler she is. Not being able to fully comprehend the situation, her emotional range varies from imaginative to devastated pretty frequently. She is one of the cutest and most sympathetic young animated characters ever put on film.
Besides displaying the horrors of war, Grave of the Fireflies tackles, family relationships, loss of innocence, and perseverance – even through the harshest of times. All the things that Seita and Setsuko do for one another makes this a story that’s about family, just as much as it is about war. But even family relationships aren’t immune to criticism, especially when you consider Seita and Setsuko’s dysfunctional relationship with their aunt.
The animation can be beautiful, especially during the night sequences with the fireflies and the mists. The glowing luminescence creates a haunting but beautiful aura that perfectly encapsulates what this film is all about. The main theme from the musical score that plays at the beginning and reappears throughout is filled with lyrical melancholy – the melody is especially memorable.
Should this film be viewed by children? Well when it came out it was a marketed as a double feature with My Neighbor Totoro, probably one of the most lighthearted films ever made. Personally this movie, which doesn’t have an MPAA rating, is hovering around the PG-13 range due to the emotional trauma it causes and its wartime setting. Nevertheless if you’re looking to teach a young person about the horrors of war and you feel Schindler’s List would be too much, this might be the film for you.
Grave of the Fireflies isn’t a movie that moves you to tears, it’s a movie that breaks you into pieces. It’s world shattering, it’s traumatizing, and it will leave you thinking about what you just experienced for the rest of your life.
Additional Thoughts on Grave of the Fireflies from Akiyuki Nosaka
(Contains spoilers for the film, it is highly recommended that you read this after watching the movie).
The author Akiyuki Nosaka gave an interview to Animage magazine before the release of the film where he explains what made his book semi-autobiographical as opposed to being an autobiography:
“My sister’s death is an exact match with the novel. It was one week after the end of the war. At the countryside of Fukui prefecture where I was, it was the day the restrictions on lighting were removed. It must have been the 22nd. It was evening, and I was picking up my sister’s bones. I was coming home in a daze when I saw the village lit up. There was nothing like my surprise then. My sister died in my side of the world, and the light was coming back in the other.
- Honestly speaking, there was also relief that she died and my burden was gone. No one would wake me up in the night like she did with her crying, and I wouldn’t have to wander around with a child on my back any more. I’m very sorry to say this about my sister, but I did have those feelings too. That’s why I haven’t gone back to my novel (Grave of the Fireflies, published in 1967) to re-read it, since I hate that. It’s so hypocritical. It must be absolutely true that Seita must have thought of his sister as a burden too. He must have thought that he could have escaped better if it weren’t for her.
- There are many things that I just couldn’t get myself to write into the story. During composition, the older brother got increasingly transformed into a better human being. I was trying to compensate for everything I couldn’t do myself. I always thought I wanted to perform these generous acts in my head, but I couldn’t do so. I always thought I wouldn’t eat and would give the food to my little sister, but when I actually had the piece of food in my hand, I was hungry after all, so I’d eat it. And there was nothing like the deliciousness of eating in a situation like that. And the pain that followed was just as big. I’d think there is no one more hopeless in the world than me. I didn’t put anything about this in the novel.”