Grave of the Fireflies Review

Written by: Artur Galvao

When a list of the greatest War movies come to mind, people think of “Casablanca”, “Apocalypse Now”, “Saving Private Ryan” but there is one that shouldn’t be forgotten.

Welcome back to another anime review, I would say “welcome to another Ghibli July” but it’s November. However, “Grave of Fireflies” to me seems to be a fitting movie to watch in the month November. A basic synopsis of the film goes as such: A young boy and his little sister struggle to survive in Japan during World War II. The film was directed by Isoa Takahata and it stars Tsutomu Tatsumi and Ayano Shiraishi, playing the young boy (Seita) and his little sister (Setsuko). However, this film was released in 1988 to critical and financial success. This film is masterpiece by every means of the definition. As we’ll see through this review “Grave of the Fireflies” is one the toughest movie to sit through but for all the right reasons.

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This section will extremely short, due to the fact that this film does not have that many faults. One thing that comes to mind is the pacing of the film. The film can seem to drag at points which can hard to pin point the timeline of film. In addition, the film can feel longer than it actually is. The film feels like its closer to two hours even though it is only an hour and half. Honestly, these negativities I’m pointing out don’t really hinder to movie that much.

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“Grave of the Fireflies” is an emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation. Since the earliest days, most animated films have been “cartoons” for children and families. Recent animated features such as “The Lion King,” “Princess Mononoke” and “The Iron Giant” have touched on more serious themes, and the “Toy Story” movies and classics like “Bambi” have had moments that moved some audience members to tears. But these films exist within safe confines; they inspire tears, but not grief. “Grave of the Fireflies” is a powerful dramatic film that happens to be animated, and comparable more to a film like “Schindler’s List” and “Pianist”, than films in the animated genre. And I feel that director, Isao Takahata, was focusing on a simpler story of survival of a boy and his sister.

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This film contains several moments of fantastic animation that established Studio Ghibli as leading animation studio in Japan at the time. But for “Grave of the Fireflies,” I think style of animation was the right choice. Live action would have been burdened by the weight of special effects, violence and action. No need for high-levels of action and explosions. The style of animation allows Takahata to concentrate on the essence of the story, and the lack of visual realism in his animated characters allows our imagination to play bigger role when interpreting the characters. Even though it drawn on the face of Seita, we feel his burden of caring for his sister. And, when there is a finally is a scene, like Setsuko is burying the fireflies get a close up of an detailed expression and emotion, it feels more engaging and creates a stronger connection between the viewer and character.

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However despite all that greatness, what makes this film especially special and gut-wrenching to watch is the relationship between Seita and his sister, Setsuko. There relationship feel genuine because we feel the obligation Seita has to his sister throughout the film. It because of their relationship that here are individual moments of great beauty. One involves a night when the children catch fireflies and use them to illuminate their cave. And with this scene we feel delighted to see Setsuko feel pure happiness.

For the sake of people that haven’t had a chance to watch this film I will not spoil the ending, but the finally is the reason why it so difficult to watch “Grave of the Fireflies” for a second. To me “Grave of the Fireflies” ought to be considered as one of the great War films of all.

One comment

  1. Grave of the Fireflies actually wasn’t a commercial success when it was first released. It was a commercial flop, somewhat partially due to the fact it was originally released as a double feature with My Neighbor Totoro in 1988 upon its first screening which turned away many parents and children from viewing it due to the bizarre pairing of the lighthearted kids film with the grim war drama. The film never technically made back its profit, but Ghibli reimbursed the financial losses of both films due to the highly profitable sales of Totoro and Catbus dolls which were released around the same time of both films.

    A fun (or I guess sad) fact about the film is that it was adapted from a semi-autobiographical novella of the same name written by Akiyuki Nosaka. Nosaka was the same age as Seita was during the war and brother and sister in the film are direct stand-ins for himself and his little sister. His actual sister died of starvation during the war and Nosaka killed off the brother in his novella (the stand-in character for himself) as a self-penance and apology for failing to properly feed his sister during the war.

    Another fun piece of trivia is that the director chose to adapt this film in order to reconnect the Japanese youth of the 80s (the present at the time) with their past as he felt the current generation at the time was spoiled and totally disconnected from the horrors that their parents and grandparents had suffered just a generation prior and felt that they were ungrateful for their parent’s sacrifice. This theme is actually present in a lot of 80s media in Japan (see Akira as reference) because the 1980s saw an all time high in youth crime in Japan during a period of unsustainable economic growth. (This post-war economic growth would finally collapse sometime in the early 1990s.)

    Liked by 1 person

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