Friday, April 13, 2012



Director: Isao Takahata 
Screenplay: Isao Takahata based on the novel by Akiyuki Nosaka


One of the strange curiosities about war stories is that essentially, they are all about someone’s survival. Even when it’s about someone who didn’t survive, somebody had to live to tell the story of how someone didn’t. I think this, is what at its core makes “Grave of the Fireflies,” so powerful; it’s the story of those who didn’t survive, or leave anybody to tell their story. Yes, Akiyuki Nosaka wrote the original novel, a famous book in Japan, after having been left homeless himself during the firebombing of Japan, wasn’t capable of taking care of his young sister, who ended up dying of starvation, just like Setsuko, in the film, but the film seems more universal, with a greater sense of us being told a story through the spiritual world, and its one of hundreds of similar stories that aren’t written in books.

“Grave of the Fireflies,” is one of the essentials of Japanese anime, and that might be the main reason why it isn’t more well-known in America. Those who have seen it, never forget it, and it’s clear to me that it’s the saddest animated film ever made, and it’s certainly one of the most powerful. The movie begins with a firebombing of Kobe, where Seita and Setsuko are a little late getting to the bomb shelter after the air raid announcements. Their mother left ahead of them, but when they meet up with her, she’s been badly burned, and dies shortly thereafter. Seita is suddenly left in charge of Setsuko. He goes to another town to stay with a relative, and for awhile they’re okay, but their aunt continually complains about their laziness, and how they’re taking all the food, and not helping out with the war effort. Their father is in the Navy, and although he hasn’t gotten a reply from him in a while, Seita is confident he’ll return once the war ends. Until then, they have a little money in the bank to survive on. They have other faraway relatives, but Seita doesn’t know how to contact or locate them. Soon, they start living in the bomb shelter, which is abandoned when there’s no air raid. 

 The movie begins with Seita dying on a subway platform. I don’t think I was giving anything away to say that Setsuko dies as well. The movie could’ve been made in live action, (In fact, if you check Youtube, you can find multiple live action adaptations) and it might have fit in quite nicely alongside with the Neorealist films of Di Sica, but animation is the correct choice. Live action would give us actors, trying to emulate emotion, but animation has a way of simplifying and exaggerating emotions that live action can’t do. I’ve only seen one other film by Isao Takahata, and that was “Pom Poko,” a strange fable about shapeshifting raccoons trying to save their forest from development. That was based on an idea from the greatest of all Japanese animators, Hayao Miyazaki, and it was more lighthearted and fun, and the animation was actually slightly more interesting.

 Although “Pom Poko”’s not that great a film, it seems more typical of Isao Takahata’s work, and “Grave…” is the exception. “Grave…”’s animation isn’t that memorable, I think it’s even shot in 12 frames/second. Its closer to the look of the early Disney films than it does a movie like “Akira,” which came out around the same time. Yet, maybe more sophisticated animation isn’t right for this film. The peacefulness in the animation, and in the story, makes the film more thought-provoking than other films. Roger Ebert’s great movie review refers to “pillow scenes”, that are often found in Japanese films of all kinds, that leave a scene to look outside and ponder, or tend ponder on some more inconsequential moments, before continuing with a scene, or moving onto a new one, a tradition originating from “Pillow words,” that have a similar effect in Japanese poetry. “Grave of the Fireflies,” will take time out to see the struggling of a little girl remove her one-piece outfit to go swimming, or dwell on the surrounding world, be it a water-colored landscape or the devastating after-effects of those thousands of little tin-can of fire the Americans dropped onto Japan. 

“Grave of the Fireflies,” is one of those rare movies that actually show the human cost of war. It just happens to be animated.

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