Thursday, 16 March 2017

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Fig 1 - Grave of the Fireflies Poster
In the same year as the release of Studio Ghibli's My Neighbor Totoro comes Grave of the Fireflies, a film which couldn't be more of a tonal shift for the double-bill in which both featured at the time. The film is based on the 1967 semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, in which Japan is subject to consistent air raids which cause the lives of Seita (Tsutomu Tatsumi) and his sister Setsuko (Ayano Shiraishi) to shift irreversibly. The two are forced to take refuge with their Aunt (Akemi Yamaguchi) who shows little sympathy to the plight of their circumstances and thus decide to domesticate themselves within a rural bomb shelter.

I am unable to express with words just how profoundly devastating, emotional and beautiful this film manages to be simultaneously. Having known very little about it going in, by the third act I found myself completely unprepared for how tragic things were about to get. Though the opening scene quite literally shows us the fate of the lead characters, it never made any of what followed feel unnecessary or slow. On the contrary, the film goes to great lengths to show what Seita is willing to do to help himself and his sister survive under the scrupulous rationing system, and as we grow to care more for their welfare we ultimately grow more wary of the inevitable.

Director Isao Takahata was able to draw from his own personal account of the bombings in Japan, which is absolutely reflected in the realism of the atmosphere when it happens. Takahata states that "Many TV shows and movies that feature incendiary bombs are not accurate. They include no sparks or explosions. I was there and I experienced it, so I know what it was like." (Takahata, 2015) We are also shown in great detail the devastation these raids inflicted on the lives of the innocent, not shying away from the reality of towns turned to rubble and the mass graves that resulted.

Fig 2 - Grave of the Fireflies - Setsuko and Seita
I think had the film been made into a live-action feature, (which, incidentally it was in 2005 though rather viewed from the perspective of a cousin) it could have easily strayed into exploitation territory, and doesn't rely on fantastical elements as an excuse for this medium. It is gritty and raw in its depiction of the bombings while also demonstrating beauty and life in places yet to be ravaged by war, which delicately correlates with the balance between the siblings' struggle and their willingness to go on. Their relationship almost reminds me of 2015's Room, which similarly follows a child and a young adult in a desperate situation fueled by the optimism and hope one another brings (to much less depressing ends, albeit).

In my Paths of Glory review I stated how adamant I was about 'not being a fan of war films', but I feel that was slightly misjudged at this point. Perhaps I had only seen the dragging, exploitative side of the genre up until then, since it's clearly not the case all the time. Grave of the Fireflies is certainly up there with Spirited Away for me now. An all-round phenomenal, poetic and heart-wrenching picture that proves just how effective animation can be.



Fig. 1 Grave of the Fireflies Poster (1988) From: Grave of the Fireflies - Directed by: Isao Takahata

Fig. 2 Grave of the Fireflies Screenshot (1988) From: Grave of the Fireflies - Directed by: Isao Takahata

(Takahata, 2015)

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