It’s World War 2, the country of Japan is in peril, and siblings Setsuko and Seita have just been orphaned by an American air strike that mortally wounded their mother. With their father away in the Navy, they’ve been forced to rely on each other, and the valiant Seita will stoop to the lowest possible level to take care of his younger sister, who’s still a very small child, and who understandably doesn’t have the strength to deal with the cruel burden that’s been placed on their young shoulders. The only spark of hope they’ve been able to find lies within the home of their aunt, who takes them in under the assumption that she’s only holding them temporarily until their mother gets out of the hospital, but is dismayed to learn she’s just taken on two new mouths for the long-haul. When the two siblings decide they’re tired of her nagging and strike out on their own, will the bond between them be enough to sustain them, or will they find out that they’ve made a fatal mistake?
For the conclusion of Studio Ghibli month, we’re back to Isao Takahata, whom I previously discussed in my review of Only Yesterday. I said in that review that his visual style is vastly different from Miyazaki’s, and Grave of the Fireflies takes that difference even further. The characters skew more towards realism than I’ve ever seen in an anime before, with almost all of the medium’s most pronounced visual tropes thrown right out the door. It’s long been speculated that the Japanese draw their characters to not look Japanese, and you’d honestly be surprised by the amount of Western influence that went into the medium ever since it began, but Fireflies is designed purely with the Japanese people in mind, which is good, because this movie is telling a story from Japanese history. The character’s eyes are slightly bigger than normal, but they’re a serious downgrade from what you’d normally see in an anime, and that even applies to the toddler character, who’d normally be the exception in any other title.
Normally, even if the adult and teenage characters were drawn to some semblance of a realistic scale, the children would at least be made to look cuter and more moe-like than the adults, but no, Setsuko looks and moves like an actual little kid, with no attempts being made to make her more appealing to the audience, and considering the ways that she gets presented to us towards the end of the film, that’s all for the better. With older characters, at worst, I can say that their features look a bit exaggerated, in regards to their bone structures and skin tone, but they look more like subtle caricatures than actual anime characters. I saw shades of this in the Ogino family from Spirited Away and the present day portions of Only Yesterday, but this movie went entirely in that direction, and while Takahata isn’t really an animator himself, I can definitely see this being the direction he wanted to take it. This design choice was really the only way to present the more grizzly images in the film, which surely helped it to avoid looking as weird and off-putting as Barefoot Gen did while exploring similar subject matter.
The animation is fluid and character movements are graceful, but perhaps a bit restrained, which was probably done so in the pursuit of further realism. That, or they didn’t want any moments of stunning visuals to distract viewers from the story, or to lighten it’s intentionally heavy and tragic tone. I can oddly respect this, as even though it feels like they were holding back a bit, it was done in a ‘less is more; kind of way. That’s not to say that there aren’t big moments where the animation shines… Seita fleeing from his village with Setsuko on his back during an air raid comes to mind… But the animation really isn’t what you remember from scenes like that, it just does it’s part to tell the story. Actually, you’re more likely to remember the slower animation used in moments of mundane life, like the characters eating, or all of Setsuko’s extra little childlike quirks. The actual artwork is gorgeous, even if the sky feels stiff and frozen at times, and the use of lighting and shading is just masterful, with the use of the color red in particular being noteworthy.
The same goes for the music, which mostly hides in the background and stays safely out of the way, ll while supporting the story on an emotional and thematic level, but still deserves a ton of praise once you actually start listening to it. Well, most of it’s hard to notice, but the first one isn’t. Right off the bat, they dipped into what I assume was the public domain at the time(it definitely is now), pulling a 1920’s recording of Amelita Galli-Church, an Italian opera singer, singing There’s no Place Like Home, which is played over the main character keeling over and dying from starvation before getting disposed of by municipal workers as though dead children were as commonplace as dead bugs… Which they sadly were at the time. It’s a sad enough choice on the surface, as even though most viewers probably couldn’t identify the song due to it being sung in Italian(I know I couldn’t), but once you know the song, and once you know the lyrics, it just becomes the most soul crushing thing ever, and possibly even the most soul crushing opening song in movie history. Oh, and it also plays at the end, mirroring the bookend that was Setsuko and Seita’s fate..
But like I said, the rest of the music is a little easy to miss. There are several tunes that sound a bit generic, like they came out of a child’s music box, but they’re used in the film to accentuate moments where the two siblings are bonding and trying to find joy in each others company, cheering each other up and supporting each other in times of hopelessness. For more obviously sad moments, we have tunes like the slow violin piece Two People, which is drawn out in just the right way, with every stroke of the bow, to underscore the scene. Rather than any of the usual Studio Ghibli music composers, Grave of the Fireflies used Michio Mamiya, a man who’s career strangely doesn’t seem to have any other titles in it that most Westerners would recognize, and this was also the last piece of media he ever composed for. I can’t say he’s the best composer I’ve ever heard in an anime, but he did a fantastic job here, and it would be nice to track down some of his other projects, two of which Isao Takahata also directed.
So, I didn’t know this until I started writing this review, but there are two English dubs of this movie. That may not sound surprising, as several of the films in Ghibli’s library have been dubbed twice, but what makes this one stand out is probably the fact that neither dub was done by Disney. The original was a Central Park Media effort, and it was all right, but a little hit and miss. There are a few notable names like Crispin Freeman and Veronica Taylor thrown in, and they do great, and Amy Jones does a phenomenal job as the kids’ burdensome aunt. Seita was played by J Robert Spencer, a stage actor who only ever had this as his one voice role, and he did okay for the most part, but there are a few lines throughout where he sounds a bit too disingenuous with what he’s saying. There are even some exchanges he has with Satsuko that sound kind of condescending, which I know is the point when you’re talking to a little kid sometimes, but it just doesn’t always feel close or loving.
Speaking of Setsuko, they had an older woman named Corinne Orr, who was around sixty at the time, and she sounds like her performance was ripped out of the Higurashi dub. It’s pretty bad. Remember when I told you in my Spirited Away review that Chihiro had a better actor in Japanese, but sounded more believably childlike in English? Yeah, this version of Setsuko had neither of those advantages. I won’t say too much about the new Sentai dub, as I’ve only seen a few clips of it so far, but Emily Neves is one of the most talented voice actors in the field today, and she does a much better job playing the role, and the rest of the cast… Rounded out by Sentai house veterans Shelley Callene-black and Marcy Bannor, both of whom at least sound like they’d be the perfect choices… So if you’re going to watch this movie in English, the Sentai dub is probably the way to go, but I’d still have to recommend the Japanese, and not just because of historical authenticity. Believe it or not, Setsuko and Seita were played by actual children back then, and they did a beautiful job, despite the horrifying events they had to portray.
And speaking of those horrifying events, this film comes with a bit of a reputation, doesn’t it? It’s not uncommon to hear Grave of the Fireflies brought up in discussions regarding not only the most depressing anime of all time, but the most depressing films in general. It’s reputation precedes it so badly that people often hesitate to watch it, weary of the emotional damage it might do to them, and even afterwards, calling it the best movie that they’ll never want to watch again. Now, you know how I feel about tear-jerkers. I’m about as cynical as a critic can get, and I’ve slammed popular ‘sad’ anime titles in the past, calling them manipulative tragedy porn, and arguing against the claims of power placed upon them by fans whom I strongly disagreed with. Having said that, I actually brought up Grave of the Fireflies as an example of what those titles did wrong, and I’m more than happy to defend it after having thrown those other titles under the bus, so what’s so different about this tear-jerker? Why does it get a pass?
Well, to understand why I hold this film in such high regard, you have to first go through it’s many layers. The first layer is on the surface, where it is certainly a sad film, but it’s the way it’s executed that sets it apart. The tragic events aren’t just random occurrences where popular or beloved characters get thrown to the wolves for the sake of eliciting tears. There are reasons for the tragic things that happen, and they’re not sudden twists of fate. They’re rooted in the flaws of the characters in question, and reasons why they’d make the choices they make, and they’re the kinds of choices where you just have to scream “No! Don’t do it!” at the screen, even though you can’t guarantee that in the same situation, you wouldn’t make the same mistakes they do. They also straight up tell you right in the beginning of the movie that Setsuko and Seita will die by the end, which could have ruined everything by making their deaths predictable, but their fate was never meant to be a surprise… Rather, the whole movie is structured in such a way that knowing they die just makes the rest of the film an experience in finding out why, as every little detail building towards it just confirms what you already hoped wasn’t true.
So the story, on it’s own merits, is written really well. The foreshadowing is heavy, but still subtle, and it’s use of fireflies as symbolism for the temporary nature of life is powerful, and at the very least, the characters are compelling in their struggle to survive… They even get their own arcs, some rather short(IE their mother and aunt), but Setsuko’s arc of her declining health and Seita’s arc of his refusal to surrender to the inevitable, both of which are very well written… Honestly, you might be surprised by the second layer, a fact that’s not too unknown, that this story is mostly autobiographical. Almost all of this story, obviously excluding Seita’s death, is based on Akiyuki Nosaka’s personal experiences, and how he blamed himself for the death of his sister during the final years of World War 2. He wrote the novel as an apology to his sister, and most likely as a way to deal with the survivor’s guilt that he suffered from, which is why Seita makes so many bad decisions throughout the story, and his attempts to care for his sister on his own result in her untimely passing, followed by his own, which could almost be seen as a metaphor for the caustic nature of Japan’s unwillingness to surrender to the US, but that’s not what Takahata saw in it.
For the final layer, we’re going to have to dispel another popular hot take, that the film is intended to carry an anti-war message. Now, war is never mentioned as the cause of Seita or Setsuko’s deaths. Sure, there are some parallels between Seita and Japan at the time, and war definitely killed their mother, but the two main characters probably would have pulled through if they’d compromised, sucked it up, and stayed with their aunt, whose only real crime was not stopping them from leaving. On top of this, Isao Takahata had gone out of his way on multiple occasions to reiterate his stance that this film was never meant to be a condemnation of war, and yeah, I know, I’ve argued that the intent of a creator doesn’t negate the interpretation of the viewer… I once discussed this in a very clumsy post about WKUK’s The Grapist, long before I actually knew that The Death of the Author was an actual, existing concept… So you can read the film however you want, and your interpretation is valid, but Takahata actually had his own clear intention for the film.
The final layer is Isao Takahata’s actual intention with the film, which is the reason he felt the life story of a World War 2 survivor needed to be told when it did. If you’re looking through IMDB trivia on this movie, you might find a little summary about his actual intention, which was to convey that Seita and Setsuko were living a failed life due to their isolation from society, and if you were to look a little deeper into his words, you’ll find that this message was specifically tailored to the youth of Japan during the late eighties, who were experiencing a rise in crime and juvenile delinquency like no other in the country’s history. The economy was booming, and the younger generation had no respect or willingness to understand what the older generation had to go through to create that bubble for them, and a lot of them were making the same kinds of choices that Seita had… Fuck those uptight geezers, we can make it on our own! And just like with Seita, this attitude didn’t really work out for anyone, as it led to crime, violence, gangs… This is the crime wave that inspired the movie Akira, if you can believe it.
Takahata’s message to the youth of his generation was that periods like this don’t last forever. You don’t understand where the good times you’re living in came from, you don’t know what people had to live through to establish them, and if you take them for granted instead of working to preserve them, they’ll go away. This is why Seita and Setsuko, as spirits, look out over the horizon of the modern cityscape. This is why the symbolism of fireflies, and all of the decisions that Seita made, were so important. Because Takahata was right, and just a few short years later, the Japanese economy crashed, resulting in a depression that famously saw the nation’s GDP drop by nearly one trillion dollars. This movie is thus firmly a product of it’s times, but on the other hand, the story is told in such a way that it’s somehow still timeless, as the ideas it presents can be applied to any situation where one person, or a group of people, let their pride get the better of them and refuse to accept help.
The saddest thing about this movie, to me, isn’t the death scenes, or the portrayal of war. The saddest thing about it is the fact that most people who watch it say they only ever want to watch it once. I mean, yeah, I get that the material might have been too intense, or that the characters might not have been all that relatable to some of you, but if there’s any movie that deserves to be viewed multiple times, it’s this one. It was important when it was released, and it’s just as important now, as it tells the kind of story that very few other titles would ever be willing to tell… The story where, no matter how hard you fight, no matter how much of your pride is on the line, sometimes it’s better to give in, to settle, and to eat shit and like the taste, for the sake of preserving what’s precious to you. I don’t normally see realism as a mark of quality, but this is realism done right, with no attempts to manipulate the audience beyond the simple message it tries to convey, and it used its themes and symbols so well that they’ve survived in the medium through homages ever since.
Grave of the Fireflies was originally available from Central Park Media, but is now widely available on bluray and DVD by Sentai filmworks. I’m pretty sure it’s the only title from Ghibli to not be currently owned by Gkids, but don’t quote me on that. There’s also a 17-movie DVD collection floating around online that’s gained an absurd amount of popularity on Facebook, but trust me, it’s a Malaysian bootleg, your mileage of which may vary. The original short story by Akiyuki Nosaka is not available in English, nor is the live action remake from 2005. If you’re looking for an anime that specifically explores the famous atomic bombings, then check out Barefoot Gen.
You may remember me stating in a previous review that I’m not a huge fan of Studio Ghibli, as the majority of their work doesn’t really speak to me. I mentioned that I only really loved four of them, and after Only Yesterday and My Neighbor Totoro, this is absolutely a member of that list. It’s not my personal favorite, but it’s one of the only two Ghibli films that I’d feel confidant in calling a masterpiece. Aside from it’s cultural relevance, timeless story, important social commentary and powerful emotional resonance, it’s just not like any other movie there is. It’s not the first movie to not have a true villain, nor is it the first movie to showcase the dangers of pride and hubris, but it’s easily the only movie I’ve ever seen that’s able to deconstruct the same values that would be noble or inspirational in any other movie and put a more realistic spin on them, with such a frank depiction of how they would turn out. I’ve heard people criticize it for being emotionally manipulative tragedy porn, but i’d have to respectfully disagree. I give Grave of the Fireflies a 10/10.