Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Back in the 90’s, after years of being a comic book nerd, I finally came to embrace the wide, often freaky, world of Asian anime through The Film that indoctrinated many of us little North American geeks – Akira (1988). To this day, it’s still one of the finest of its kind. It’s one that, simply, never gets old for me. EVERY TIME I give it a rewatch (roughly every few years) and EVERY TIME…I come away having noticed, and appreciated, some detail or artistic flourish that hadn’t come to my attention with previous viewings. After checking that one out (and having it blow my fucking mind), my 20-something stoner buddies and I dove in, renting anime on VHS (and eventually DVD) whenever we could. This lasted for a few years but as with everything, tastes change and we move on. That’s what happened to me. Asian animation, so fascinating for so long, took a back-seat to more live-action fare, and that’s how it’s been for roughly two decades. Now, this is not to say that I don’t appreciate solid manga art work when I come across it…I most certainly do. I just don’t seek out the media the way that I used to, back in the day.

Until this week.

Having been doing some more reading into the media spawned by the WW3 paranoia of the 1980’s (a genre of which I definitely have a strong opinion, which you, Dear Reader, can find in several of my previous reviews), I kept coming across mention of this title. People spoke glowingly about it, and its message, though there was always a cautious warning within the text about a certain bleakness to the story. I’ve come to appreciate a generous scoop of doom-n-gloom in my fiction (largely cuz, I think that shit is where we, the human race, are headed anyway…but that’s a point for another article), especially when it comes from a place of honesty, research…and fear. I STILL hold 1984’s live-action ‘horror’ film Threads (SEE IT!) as the Gold Standard for bleak-but-necessary viewing, but I’m always on the look-out for new material that might knock my mood down a peg or two.

I seem to have succeeded.

Being that my Anime’ Nerd status has been greatly diminished over the last 20 odd years, this title never screamed out to me for a viewing. But given the context of the grim historical theme and just how highly this one was recommended online (and the fact that I was able to stumble upon a free HD version on Youtube), I decided it was time to again take in some ‘new’adult-themed animation (NOT of the Hentai variety, ya sick bastards) and find out why this film seemed to stand out from the plethora of other anime’ choking that corner of pop culture.

So that’s what I did.

Grave of the Fireflies takes place in the Japanese city of Kobe, in the waning years of WW2. The story opens with a teenage boy named ‘Seita’ at the end of a struggle with the life he has been dealt. As he fades, we are then treated to the flashback that makes up the narrative. ‘Seita’, and his much younger sister ‘Setsuko’, lived on the outskirts of Kobe with their mother, as their father was a naval officer in the Imperial Navy off fighting the Allies in the Pacific. One night, there’s an American air raid and dozens of American B-29’s shower the city with hundreds of incendiary bombs. Given the wood-and-paper construction of the Japanese buildings, this coldly calculated attack creates a hellish firestorm that destroys much of the city and forces the two kids away, separating them from their mother, who had fled to a bomb shelter. Unfortunately, the shelter was caught in the flames and she suffered horrible burns over most of her body, and was found days later by her son in a crowded and miserable hospital. Before long, her already weak heart can’t take the agony and she dies, leaving the kids essentially orphaned. For a time, they are taken in by their aunt but before long she comes to view them as pests, openly berating them for slights either inconsequential or imaginary. Things come to a head, and they leave, taking to the open road. They stumble upon a deserted mine shaft and set up camp in its entrance. After that, it becomes to fight for survival against starvation, disease and misery as the events of history play out around them.

While I will admit that Grave of the Fireflies didn’t pack the emotional wallop that I had geared myself up for, I can definitely see why this film is held in such high regard, as a story to be taken seriously in the context of the cost of war on children. What the narrative puts ‘Seita’ and ‘Setsuko’ through is grim and realistic, making the interspersed moments of sibling fun and affection all the more harrowing and affecting when certain things come to pass. It’s not even that the film is terribly violent onscreen (but when it is…it is), but it’s depiction of life after such devastation is unrelenting. It’s also interesting to note that while we do see a Japanese military presence among the population, everyone is treated as normal citizens trying to live their small contained lives as their country fights The Good Fight. Or so they believe. The film breezes right past the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with barely a mention, only admitting that the war was lost and that Japan was surrendering. I liked this narrative choice. The natural instinct could very well be to segway in on these two massively historic events, for drama and spectacle purposes, but this time around, they keep to the immediate devastation plaguing our main characters and don’t distract from their awful plight with a nuclear bomb attack that occurred elsewhere, unfelt. While a localized nuclear holocaust is bad, there are other forms of devastation that will also tear people’s lives apart.

As depicted here.

On a technical level, the animation by Studio Ghibli (surprised that this bleak tale is one of theirs, given their often-safe output) is solid, with some very striking imagery throughout. Some of the shading could’ve been a bit more detailed, as opposed to just dark lines for shadows or grit but overall, I appreciated the detail and compositions.

If I had to dredge up a complaint, I’d say that I found the North American voice acting for Setsuko was occasionally annoying in its pitch and overly simple ‘baby’ dialogue, but that did not take away from the tragedy of what plays out and just nailed home the idea that these are kids, struggling to survive in a hard cruel world.

But all in all, I’m glad that I opted to dip my toes back into a bit of classic anime, and I appreciate that I now ‘get’ what the fans had to say. I can now understand how its impact as both a statement AND a piece of art certainly helped its influence reverberate over the years. It’s not a ‘happy’ movie, not something you toss on with the bros over beers on a Friday night. But I think it is an important movie. The omnipresent undercurrent of sadness (this is a compliment) that hovers just below the narrative is quite striking, and goes a long way to sell the misery that these characters, these kids, literally innocent and unaware of certain realities they must endure. They have what is essentially the end of their world suddenly happen, and survival becomes a fight…a fight that isn’t always won.

Grave of the Fireflies is a hauntingly beautiful piece of animated ‘fiction’ (inspired by a true story) that has something poignant to say about an often unconsidered effect of war on a society and, more importantly, that society’s children. Obviously, this film won’t be for everyone but if you’re a manga or anime’ fan (same thing?) who can appreciate a good ‘human interest’ story, then I would put this onto some Must See list. But to the uninitiated, if you want to also dip your own toes into the world of Asian animation, there are far worse films to start with than Grave of the Fireflies.

Though I do HIGHLY recommend that Akira be your first. Just saying.


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