I’ve only seen a couple of Studio Ghibli films in the past but each has had an interesting and often unique story. Grave of the Fireflies is the least fantastical and most hard hitting film I’ve seen from the studio and it’s probably also the best. Set at the closing stages of the Second World War it details the struggle for survival of two orphaned children called Seita and Setsuko. The movie has an anti war message at its centre but its main themes are of survival and of sibling love. With their father away at war and their mother killed by falling bombs, the young pair are forced to fend for themselves in a Japan which has no use for them. After initially finding a home with a distant aunt, they soon discover that they aren’t wanted and strike out on their own, finding refuge in an abandoned air raid shelter, scavenging and stealing what food they can lay their hands on.
Grave of the Fireflies is a depressing film both for its overarching themes and also for its individual character arcs. Although I’d heard it wasn’t all fun and games, I was still a little shocked by the brutal honesty with which it depicts war and the ending which is far from what you’d expect for what is essentially a young person’s cartoon. Despite the harrowing themes and images, personally I’d be happy to show the film to a bright child of about ten. If it could hold their attention I think that the movie would both interest and educate them and perhaps open their eyes to their species past, informing their decisions in the future.
I sometimes have a problem with the style of anime. Because I grew up at a time when it was done cheaply and quickly in the likes of Pokémon and Digimon, I grew to dislike the way it looked. It’s taken me a while to appreciate the beauty of a well crafted anime and while the visuals aren’t as stunning as in the likes of Spirited Away, they’re very well done and convey destruction equally as well as they do beauty. The film was released in 1988 but it hasn’t dated much and the placing of ‘the camera’ as it were, is exquisitely done. I can’t fault the look at all beyond my own lack of appreciation of the art form.
As good as the visuals are, it’s the story which is the real selling point here. The plot is depressing and gloomy but also heart-warming. Somehow the movie manages to be both disheartening and uplifting at the same time. Although horrible things happen to the central characters, their love and looking out for one another is touching. As the older sibling, Seita spends a lot of time trying to protect his sister from the truth about the situation. When her health takes a turn for the worse he even goes so far as to run towards the air raids in an attempt to steal food from deserted houses before their residents return. The final few scenes tug on the heart strings slightly but are very effective. A character fades in and out of the screen while a poignant song plays over the top and childish laughter can be heard. It’s heart-rending. If I had one small gripe with the plot it would be that although life with the horrid aunt wasn’t great, the characters did at least have a roof over their head. They also had a considerable amount of money. Deciding to leave and live alone wasn’t their only choice. I can forgive the film for this though as overall the plot is handled with a lot of care.
Something which I found shocking was the way that the children were treated by other adults. With a small exception, most of the adults in the film act dreadfully towards the children in their time of need. It’s discouraging to see young people cared for as little as this but the film doesn’t shy away from drawing characters who undoubtedly existed and were only interested in their own survival or perhaps brainwashed to such an extent that they were blinded to their surroundings and ever worsening situation.
Grave of the Fireflies is a powerful film which has a great story that I was emotionally invested in. The dub is well done and the animation is good but not spectacular. It’s made me want to see more of Studio Ghibli’s work and opened my eyes to darker themes in amine. It’s a film full of pathos and spirit and I highly recommend it.