Review: Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

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“To live is everything”, Isao Takahata says as he opens his interview about The Grave of Fireflies. This comment encapsulates the overall message of the film and is indeed the persistent action of the two main characters, 12 year old Seita and his four year old sister Setsuko. Against major devastation on their home, family and spirit, the two children try their best to survive, post extensive firebombing of Japan in 1944.

However from the outset, we know that their efforts have been futile. We see Seita waste away at the railway station in the opening scene. As he feebly clings on to life, passerbys walk over him and chides his presence, and others like him. After his death we see him join his little sister in the spirit world and through his eyes we witness the journey of their deaths.

This is not a story about survival or how to survive, it is a simple retelling of two children’s lives in wartime Japan, a thought echoed by Takahata. However, the resulting response is varied, you may take away from it what you will: some have sobbed throughout, being moved to tears, some take it as a sobering anti-war message and then some will see it as moving story of sibling love.

There is no doubt, however, that the result is an extremely beautiful and heart-wrenching film with undeniable impact. One of the first scenes where Seita and Setsuko witness a shower of firebombs at close range is terrifying and invasive, and it still gives me goosebumps when I recall it. I can see Grave of the Fireflies provoking, moving and inspiring people for many years to come.

Based on the 1967 Akiyuki Nosaka’s semi-autobiographical novels, Grave of Fireflies is indeed a rarity; a story set during WWII where two children die would be hard pressed to be made today, animated or otherwise. Thankfully, the responsibility of rendering it into an animated form fell into the hands of esteemed Studio Ghibli, namely director Isao Takahata. Renowned for their inspiring and superb work, Studio Ghibli has made Grave of the Firelies into a film deserving of its place in cinema history.

Backdropped against such a tumultous and distressing time in history, we see Seita and Setsuko being thrown into an depressing abyss; wavering through loss, humiliation and hunger. The juggernaut of the war is a whirlwind of political events that weighs down on the two siblings and they and many others are swept along with it. The complexity of their circumstance is juxtaposed by Setsuko’s simple demands: “I want to pee”, I’m hungry and thirsty” or “I want mama!”, a reminder of the innocent demands that are inherent in all of us.

Other juxtapositions are evident throughout the film. Amongst the gloom and doom, there are many inspiring moments – Seita and Setsuko have a great day at the beach and of course, the night where they catch fireflies, hence the namesake of the film.

Now with the new release, you can discover the original film and Takahata’s surprising thoughts on it and more with the extra DVD of features. The DVD contains interviews with director Isao Takahata, Roger Ebert and historians Theodore Cook and Taya Cook, who give Grave of the Fireflies a historical perspective.

Don’t avoid it just because you think it will get you down, it is indeed a very sad film but optimism and courage prevails as the overriding theme. But have some hankies ready or a generous person who doesn’t mind their shoulders getting a teary wash.

9 fruit drops out of 10.
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