Tsutomu Tatumi, Ayano Shiraishi, Yoshiko Shinohara and Akemi Yamaguchi.
Grave of the Fireflies is perhaps one of the most important movies in the history of Japanese anime movies and one of the highlights of Studio Ghibli's stunning work throughout. I have seen many movies in my life that have taken the subjects of war, human drama and tragedy in general and did nothing significantly enough with it except for making either juicy movies or movies that feels downright preachy or bore. Grave of the Fireflies makes us rethink what a movie can do, the places it can reach within us and how powerful this medium can be. Call it an Anti-War movie or a simple war tragedy film but what it does is effect you on so many levels that i doubt any other movie in this world can have such an achingly devastating and hauntingly profound effect on your soul, your heart and your mind. When i first watched this movie back when i was young, i wasn't quite blown away by it. Now after so many years when i decided to have a Studio Ghibli Marathon, this movie changed the way i see the world and the way i feel about everything. Its written and directed by Isao Takahata who made some interesting movies for the studio and is my second favorite anime director after the master Hayao Miyazaki. This movie is an adaptation of a semi-autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka which is said to be an apology to his own sister.
This movie opens with a shot of Sannomiya Station, 14 year old Seita is shown in miserable condition along with a few other children dying of starvation. One of the janitors goes through his possessions and finds a candy tin with ashes and bones in it and throws it out. The next thing we see is a shot of the spirits of both Seita and his 4 year old sister Setsuko with a cloud of fireflies. The story is then narrated by spirit of Seita giving us the flashback of Japan at the end of the World War II and his story. We see many American fighter planes flying and the entire city in panic trying to hide themselves. Setsuko and Seita's ill mother is in the bomb shelter and as they try to get there, dozens of bombs are dropped causing a huge fire in the neighbourhood and the city. Their mother is horribly burned, she is taken to the hospital but dies afterwards. They move in with their aunt who allows them to stay with her only if they sell their mother's kimonos for rice. Seita eventually has to sell the leftovers he buried and as the days passes, they have nothing left to sell and the aunt becomes more and more bitter towards them. Its very heartbreaking to see both of them being treated so badly, only if they had their family and only if they weren't left to suffer like this. Their life becomes increasingly difficult and painful and one day they decides to leave the house. They find an abandoned bomb shelter near a pond and that is where they live for the rest of their short and miserable life. The name of the movie is very symbolic, Fireflies are known for their short life. At night in the shelter, they see many fireflies which they release into the shelter for light. Setsuko finds them dead the next day, she digs a grave for them to bury and asks why they had to die and why her mother had to die. The movie moves on as life begins to grow more grim and dark for them, they run out of the rice and Seita is forced to steal. One day as he brings home large quantity of food for the gravely ill Setsuko, he finds her almost dying of hunger.
We know the fate of these two children from the very first scene which wont do much but as you see them struggle and survive, cut off from society in such awful conditions, that is when you begin to grow a painful affection with them and in the end, this movie leaves you completely broke. There is a scene towards the end of the movie which shows Setsuko playing beside the bomb shelter, its a fantasy scene shown to evoke an emotional response within us. That is when i immediately started crying, i couldn't hold myself. Imagining millions of people like these, children, innocent people who had nothing to do with war dying such miserably over the years. The focus of this movie is not the war that was fought but what the war did to the people in general and to one of the families, its a personal movie showing the tragedy faced by a few people. Grave of the Fireflies is haunting and horrifying but at the same time its very gentle, beautiful and very human. Its nevertheless rewarding at the end, you have this hope within you, a hope that maybe the next life for them would be more peaceful than this one and that they are gone for better. The range of emotions this anime awakes in you is fascinating, sorrow, rage, anger, grief etc and shows how beautiful and how fragile a life can be. This account of two brave children to me is more powerful than any other war related movie we have ever seen, What we get to see most of the time is the smaller picture, two conflicting ideologies, two countries fighting over something and they have some heroic soldiers and the whole movie tends to glamorize the war rather than show us the bigger picture. What that does to people we don't even hear about, the ordinary citizens of the countries. War is not something a country should be proud of, a country fails to provide the first thing it needs to do, to protect its people and war happens when a country fails. Winning battles doesn't count as victory to me, its always failure at the end that they get to have.
Characters of Seita and Setsuko are the heroes of this movie, they represent the heroism of the people in the war effected countries over the years. More so for these very young children who gets to deal with the problems, difficulties and responsibilities of adults at such a young age. The simple moments of joy and ordinary life they get to have while in the worse of situations shows the spirit of human being. A candy tin with different kinds of candies in it becomes this recurring element of joy for the young Setsuko. The same candy tin has the ashes and bones of the same Setsuko in the end when she dies. Brilliantly made movie in every sense, graphically violent and intense for sure. The whole look of this movie is unlike any other Ghibli movie, the burned city, the smoke and fire, the destruction, flying planes, dropping bombs, people surviving in the worst of conditions, you don't get to see these things in animated movies. Roger Ebert is right, this whole experience makes us rethink what animation can do and what it can be used for. Knows as one of the most depressing and tear jerking movies ever made, one of the best war movie, Anti-War movie or Tragic movie, in the end it just comes down to how much of a heart you have for a movie like this to move you with its intense emotional power. I know i cried for an hour or so thinking about how miserable life can be, how much we do things not even thinking about other people and how that might effect them. We have thousands of stories like these around us, people die every day of hunger of poverty and we don't even know. Grave of the Fireflies will forever be one of my all time favorite movies, a movie i respect with the bottom of my heart for an unforgettable experience of a lifetime it gave me and for making me think, which movies rarely do. A moving masterpiece of the utmost level.