Thursday, August 3, 2023

Review: "GRAVEYARD OF THE FIREFLIES" is as Powerful as Any Live-Action Wartime Film

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 35 of 2023 (No. 1924) by Leroy Douresseaux

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Hotaru no Haka – original Japanese title
Running time:  89 minutes (1 hour, 29 minutes)
MPAA – not rated
DIRECTOR:  Isao Takahata
WRITER:  Isao Takahata (based on the novel by Akiyuki Nosaka)
PRODUCER:  Toru Hara
EDITOR: Takeshi Seyama
COMPOSER:  Michio Mamiya


Starring:  (voices) Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi, Akemi Yamaguchi, and Yoshiko Shinohara

Hotaru no Haka or Grave of the Fireflies is a 1988 Japanese animated World War II drama and historical film directed by Isao Takahata and produced by Studio Ghibli.  The film is based on the 1967 short story, “Grave of the Fireflies,” by Akiyuki Nosaka.  This was the fourth animated film produced by Studio Ghibli and the first one directed by studio co-founder, Isao Takahata.  Grave of the Fireflies focuses on a young boy and his little sister as they struggle to survive in World War II Japan.

Grave of the Fireflies introduces a boy, Seita (Tsutomu Tatsumi), and his little sister, Setsuko (Ayano Shiraishi).  They find themselves on their own as a result of one of the American raids that was part of “the Bombing of Kobe” campaign during World War II.

One day, a group of American Boeing bombers firebombs Kobe.  Though Seita and Setsuko survive the bombing, their mother (Yoshiko Shinohara) is severely injured and later dies.  Seita conceals their mother's death from Setsuko in an attempt to keep her happy.  Seita does not know the status of their father who is an officer in the Imperial Japanese Navy.  The children move in with an aunt (Akemi Yamaguchi), but although Seita tries to accommodate his aunt's demands, she becomes resentful of the children being in her home.

After leaving their aunt's house, Seita and Setsuko move into an abandoned bomb shelter located near a pond.  The place is swarming with fireflies, which delights Setsuko.  For a time, Seita and Setsuko are happy, but like the life of an adult firefly, the children's happiness is short-lived.

Previously, I have only reviewed two Studio Ghilbi films that were not directed by Hayao Miyazaki.  They are Tales from Earthsea (2006), which was directed by Miyazaki's son GorĊ Miyazaki, and The Secret World of Arrietty (2010).  As Netflix is shutting down its DVD-by-mail division (in September 2023), I am hoping to get to more Studio Ghibli films that I have not previously watched.

I think Grave of the Fireflies has received much praise because it is not only a powerful war film, but it is also a truly unique war film.  Grave of the Fireflies is not an anti-war film, although it depicts the suffering that wartime can bring, mainly through Seita and Setsuko, but also via background characters.  The film is haunting and achingly sad, but at the same time, life goes on, even in wartime.  Seita and Setsuko make the best of life, a nearly inseparable pair enjoying life the best that they can.  The film portrays how Seita watches over Setsuko so that she can still live the life of a small girl, frockling, having adventures, and using her imagination.  Her smiles and happiness permeate this film even in its darker moments.  One might question the choices that Seita makes, but he did not make them out of concern of his own pride.  He made them so that his little sister could live in dignity.

Grave of the Fireflies proves that animated films can tackle the most achingly human conditions, including the heartbreaking experiences that afflicted many Japanese during World War II.  The animation's glorious colors might suggest a vivid pastoral fantasy, but the story is a depiction of the human pastoral.  Thematically, the film's fireflies can represent many things, from birth and decay to the flight of planes that attack Japan.  However, I usually thought of the spirits of children in flight when I saw a scene of fireflies gently moving upwards.

Grave of the Fireflies is a film that no fan of animated feature films should miss.  It has a timeless quality, and I found it hard to believe that this year (2023) is the thirty-fifth anniversary of the film's original Japanese theatrical release.  The story that it depicts may be from a long-gone time, but like Seita and Setsuko, the spirit of Grave of the Fireflies still stirs.

9 of 10
★★★★+ out of 4 stars

Thursday, August 3, 2023

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