“Why must fireflies die so young?”
I’m reluctantly a fan of some anime, but I’ll admit, the medium has been really hit or miss for me. There are some brilliant stories and a lot of stuff that’s just not for me. But when I heard about an anime film that shows World War II through the eyes of two orphaned Japanese children, I knew I had to give it a shot. Grave of the Fireflies, directed by Isao Takahata (The Tale of Princess Kaguya) who was a colleague of Hayao Miyazaki, is a moving and heart-breaking story about the horrors of war and the importance of family in a setting that American viewers don’t often think about. I’ll warn you now: it’s quite sad, and your soul will undoubtedly die a little bit as you watch this. But it’s still a beautiful story that I’m glad I experienced. And if you’re wondering, there is an English dub and it’s pretty decent.
The opening scene, set after the other events of the movie, shows the main character dying of hunger in a train station, so you can tell what kind of movie this will be. Jumping back a bit, the plot really opens with an air raid on a small Japanese town. An older boy, Seita, and his young sister Setsuko find safety in a shelter, but their mother is not so lucky, and neither is the town. Their father is a soldier in the war, so the two children move in with a distant aunt who can’t support them and lets them know it. The war takes from them everything, and the only joy they have is each other. There are plenty of sweet scenes between Seita and Setsuko, but plenty of heartbreaking scenes as well, and Seita’s dedication to his sister is deeply moving.
Rice balls. I made them for you. Here, have one. You don’t want them?
The beauty of Grave of the Fireflies is that, despite its subject matter, it doesn’t try to turn the plight of the characters into a hamfisted morality lesson. It simply tells a deeply emotional story. The main characters are admirable, but not overly idealized. The movie takes its time to show personal scenes that make the characters real. Even antagonists like the aunt are just trying to make it in this new war-torn country. The tension brings out the bad in everyone, although Seita and Sensuko never drift apart.
This is not a sad movie; this is a soul-crushing movie. But the drama is all very real and earned—there are no manipulative moments or cheap shots to the gut. That doesn’t make it any less effective. As these two children suffer, we see the entire nation of Japan fall apart. It was a little corner of history I’d never really thought much about, and it goes to show that no matter who writes the history, there is no glory in war. And it’s amazing that this much raw emotion is wrapped up in an anime movie. This is definitely a film that transcends anime, and likely all animation.
I’ll admit, showing Grave of the Fireflies on movie night would be a great way to lose friends. But I think it’s important to be sad from time to time. There’s an odd beauty and an astounding emotional depth in this movie, and it’s a great example of a sad movie that doesn’t have to go out of its way to get there. It’s definitely a niche movie with a limited audience, but it’s one I’m very glad I saw. For what it is, it’s great, and I’ve never seen another movie like it.
Director: Isao Takahata
Genres: animated, drama, war