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A devastatingly emotional ride detailing the loving bonds between a brother and sister in Kobe, Japan during the end of World War II.

The 8th installment of this anime features series is Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies. Viewer discretion is advised, due to some intense war scenes.

On the night of March 16, 1945, the United States Army Air Force began an incendiary bomb strike on the industrial Japanese city of Kobe, in order to knock out war production and bring an end to the second world war. About half of the city was lost, with 8,000 people losing their lives and 650,000 people displaced from their homes. Based on a true event, Grave of the Fireflies follows Seita and Setsuko as they try to make the best of it while everything crumbles around them.

I do my best not to give spoilers in my reviews, but there are going to be some in this one because of how the movie plays out. Grave of the Fireflies is told as a flashback, as the “end” of the story begins the film. So you will know the ending in the first 30 seconds of the film. If you would rather not know this than feel free to skip down to the last paragraph.

The film starts in September of 1945, at Sannomiya Station, with Seita slumped against a pillar dying of starvation. That night a station guard removes Seita’s body from the station and finds a tin container in his belongings. As the guard opens it, Setsuko’s, Seita’s little sister, spirit is released and joins her brother’s spirit surrounded by fireflies. Seita then begins to tell the story of how they got there.

They were caught up in the firebombing but survived by heading outside of the city. After the fire ceased the siblings made their way to a tree, where they were to meet their mother who had gone to the bomb shelter. News came that their mom had been badly injured and Seita was urged to go see her while Setsuko was looked after. Seita found his mother, covered in bandages, horribly burned from head to toe. She died shortly after. With no home, and no parents (dad was fighting as an officer in the navy) the siblings head to an aunt’s house. Initially, she took pity on them and took them in and cared for them. But as food rations tightened up, she became resentful and hostile toward the orphans. They eventually leave and make a home in an abandoned bomb shelter. Seita had a tin of fruit drops that he would give to Setsuko to help keep her happy and the two were initially happy in their new home. However, things turn for the worse as food becomes scarce and Setsuko becomes sick with malnutrition. The rest is easily deduced if you read any of the previous paragraphs.

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At its core, this is a film about the love between siblings. Seita does whatever he can in order to protect and take care of his young sister. Setsuko in return has a joy within her that helps Seita keep his spirits up. In typical Studio Ghibli fashion, there is a sense of innocence to the subject matter at hand. The children build swings, catch fireflies, and decorate the bomb shelter as if they were merely playing in the back yard. Yet, there is also sagacity to the weightiness of the wartime world around them that often appears beneath the innocence.

The animation is typical of a Studio Ghibli production; top notch in every way. The color palette chosen for each scene was perfect in the conveyance of describing what was occurring on screen. In an early scene the colors are bright and vibrant, reflecting the sunny day with only a few white, puffy clouds in the sky. As the air raid sirens sound, and the American bombers cover the area in incendiary bombs, the scene becomes awash in greys, sepia, and the dark oranges and reds associated with a city ablaze. The children’s skin tone also changes throughout the film. In the beginning they exhibit a healthy tone, with Setsuko in particular showing rosy cheeks. As their health suffers, their skin tones become dull and ashen. Setsuko loses those rosy cheeks. The attention to detail, as described, makes Fireflies a visual feast despite release in 1988.

The audio was well recorded as well. The soundtrack was artfully crafted to convey the mood of the scene, whether a mournful orchestral work or a simple sound of crickets and frogs in the background. The voice actors were up to Studio Ghibli quality and provided much emotional impact in the reading of the script.

Some would say that Fireflies is an amazing anti-war film due to the palpable pain from losing loved ones in war. That is too simplistic of a view that does this movie a great injustice. First and foremost, it is a story about the loving bonds between a brother and sister making the best of a bad situation. The depiction of the harshness of war is a backdrop that adds kinetics and urgency to the story. Very much in the same way, the Normandy landing provides the propulsion to Saving Private Ryan. While philosophical arguments can be made that films set during war time are inherently pro or anti-war, shoehorning a film into one of those labels detracts from the rest of the narrative. In relation to Fireflies, doing so glosses over the emotional depth that stirs the emotions within one. Setsuko’s last breath loses the impact if it is simplistically used as an anti-war message. However, since Takahata, who said it contains no anti-war message at all, did not go that route, the death of Setsuko is intensely, emotionally draining.

If it is not clear yet, the answer is this movie should be seen. It is an emotionally complex piece of film set to simplistic themes that are easily understood. The animation is fantastic and colored beautifully. The audio stays primarily in the background but adds subtlety to scenes. Just beware that this film is an emotional rollercoaster ride that leaves the viewer drained upon exit.

 

Director: Isao Takahata

Producer: Toru Hara

Writer: Isao Takahata

Distributor: Toho

Actors: Seita- Tsutomu Tatsumi, Adam Gibbs

Setsuko- Ayano Shiraishi, Emily Neves

Release Date: April 16, 1988

Rating: NR

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