I should say up front that there are spoilers for Grave of the Fireflies in this article.
Animation is often thought of as a safe haven for children. With Disney films as popular with kids today as they ever have been, Pixar making millions from even the most peculiar ideas and everybody else struggling to keep up, it seems as if this thought process is a reasonable one.
Whilst this may be true for the most part, there are many animated films (and TV shows) aimed squarely at adults. South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut is a great example of this, with its lewd and crude humour and foul mouth tirades targeted at everyone from Barbra Streisand to the Baldwins.
Mary & Max is another, albeit one at the opposite end of the crude and lewd spectrum, with its emotive tale of a young Australian girl’s pen-pal relationship with a middle-aged native New Yorker suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome. Neither of these films are suitable for a child in the ways that, say, Toy Story is.
But there’s one studio that sits firmly in the middle of the two camps, and the range they have shown is unrivalled within the medium of animation. I am, of course, talking about Studio Ghibli (pronounced Jib-Lee).
The Japanese animation studio behind Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and Kiki’s Delivery Service (amongst others) have been making films since Castle In The Sky in 1986, but their contribution to cinema (not just animation) reached one of its many peaks in 1988, with the release of two wildly different, yet utterly timeless, films; one of which is the childishly innocent and heartwarming My Neighbour Totoro. The other is the mournful and heartbreaking Grave of the Fireflies.
Isao Takahata, director of Grave of the Fireflies, was one of the founders of Studio Ghibli alongside Hayao Miyazaki, director of most of the studios great films including the aforementioned My Neighbour Totoro, and his work is often overshadowed by that of his more illustrious business partner.
It’s certainly true that Takahata’s filmography doesn’t have nearly the same shine as Miyazaki’s, but he is responsible for directing arguably the finest film to come from the studio. He is also responsible for branching out of the studios fantasy roots, starting with Grave of the Fireflies and continuing with films like Only Yesterday (1991), which is, for all intents and purposes, a character driven drama more in line with Ozu or Rosselini than Miyazaki, and is certainly not a film in line with Ghibli’s earlier work.
It was Grave of the Fireflies that really made a name for Takahata and for Ghibli. People began to realise that this small Japanese animation house was really pushing forward the idea of animation as a medium rather than simply the genre Walt Disney established in the 30’s and 40’s. Disney’s stories all had their own specific conventions: metaphorical stories, fantastical elements and themes of growing up and the dangers of the world to name but a few.
There was nothing wrong with this at the time – animation was a new art form when Disney was at its peak – but modern audiences need something more than the recycled conventions of the past (this is one of the reasons that Disney hasn’t made a good “traditional” film since The Lion King in 1994; they’re not breaking new ground) and Ghibli provided this.
Whilst previous Studio Ghibli film Castle in the Sky and the surprisingly non-Ghibli Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (technically not a Ghibli film as it was made before the studio was formed in 1985, although it was directed by Miyazaki, produced by Takahata, and is featured in the Studio Ghibli collection DVD’s and Blu-Ray’s) are more focused on fantasy adventure based storylines, Grave of the Fireflies is a character driven drama set in wartime Japan.
The film focuses on the story of brother and sister Seita and Setsuko (respectively) who lose their mother in a fire-bombing and are forced to fend for themselves in war ravaged Japan.
The following struggle to survive forms the bulk of the story and is as compelling as it is heartbreaking. The character of Seita is the catalyst of the film with his all-consuming pride and the cold, ungrateful way in which he treats his elders. It’s obvious that he’s been thrown in at the deep end in caring for his sister (he’s barely a teenager) but his manner towards those who try to help him is oddly cold.
When his aunt sells Seita’s mother’s clothes to buy rice for the two of them, she takes some of the rice for herself as payment. Whilst this may seem like a depraved act in the circumstances, Seita’s refusal to do anything other than sit about the house reading comics and occasionally entertaining his sister must be frustrating for his aunt. He could be out earning some money or helping with the war effort (he’s old enough, at least according to his aunt), but he doesn’t. He is simply there for his sister.
It’s ironic, then, that it’s Seita’s mistakes that cause the eventual emotional climax of the film. His pride makes them leave his aunt’s house to live in an abandoned shelter by a river, his pride stops the two of them going back to the house and his pride – somewhat ironically – drives him to steal food and clothes (for trading) during air raids in order to survive. It’s Seita’s pride that kills his sister.
Pride is, thankfully, only a small part of the story. The devastating nature of the film’s climax is made all the more poignant by the beautifully realised relationship between brother and sister. It’s immediately apparent that there’s a gorgeous bond between them from the very beginning.
During the film’s opening action scene, Seito is left to make sure he and his sister get to a shelter during an air raid as their mother has a heart problem and has to leave straight away (although this seems implausible: surely a decent parent would wait to make sure their children are safe instead of saving themselves?).
During their time gathering important possessions from around the house, Seito ties Setsuko to his back to ensure she doesn’t become lost in the sea of morbid panic that awaits them in the streets. As he goes to leave, he returns (on the insistence of Setsuko) to pick up a casually discarded doll on the floor for his sister. In the event of an emergency, you’d expect things such as this to be left for reasons of safety, but Seita knows how important this doll is to his sister and risks his (and her) life returning to salvage it. The doll is with Setsuko for the entirety of the film.
Another example of their bond is during a trip to the beach. The two of them are playing in the water when Seita turns to chase Setsuko around the beach, pretending to be a bear. People turn to look; neither of them care. To them, no one else matters but each other. This is further developed during a scene where the pair catch fireflies to light their new “home”. The wonder on Setsuko’s face is matched only by Seita’s loving looks at his sister.
The glorious relationship between the two of them is the crux of the film, and is integral to the emotional impact of its final moments. The devil’s in the details, and without the significant effort that was put into animating the characters every nuance and writing a convincing story of love and loss, Grave of the Fireflies could easily have failed.
Instead, it serves as testament to what Studio Ghibli can do with the medium of animation, and was instrumental in bringing Ghibli to a western audience. Without it, we wouldn’t have films like Spirited Away; we’d simply have a Ghibli shaped hole in our cinematic landscape and that would be a tragedy.
Roger Ebert labelled the film as one of the most powerful anti-war films ever made. For me, you could quite easily drop ”anti-war” from that statement and it would still ring true. There simply is nothing quite like Grave of the Fireflies.