War is sometimes called inevitable. It is glorified as being necessary in order to eliminate certain evil, to protect one’s country, to defend its people. But what is mostly missed is the story of those caught up in a war that is not theirs.
Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru No Haka) is an animated film about World War II and the lives of two orphans at a time when compassion and humanity are seemingly lost. 14-year-old Seita and 4-year-old Setsuko lose their mother during a bombing incident. Seita, who now finds responsibility hanging on his shoulders, has to take the help of his aunt, who slowly grows to resent the children during the difficult times. Unable to bear her selling his mother’s kimonos, Seita takes Setsuko along with him to an isolated bomb shelter where he thinks they can live independently.
However, food grows scarce, and though the children find temporary happiness by catching fireflies and watch them circle the bomb shelter at night, they are faced with despair in the morning, when the short-lived fireflies are all dead. These beautifully executed scenes are very symbolic in nature and help explain the futility and the death of hope in wartime.
If your exposure to animated films has been restricted to the ones made by Disney/Pixar and Dreamworks, this film can come as quite a shock. This is no fairy tale. There are no heroes or villains. Deaths are not implied, they are shown. The film is not gory, but some images may definitely be emotionally disturbing to sensitive viewers.
Isao Takahata, who established Studio Ghibli with Hayao Miyazaki, is no unknown filmmaker. Along with Miyazaki, Takahata has created a number of wonderful animated films. To those who are unacquainted with his work, this is the first film Takahata has made on such a tragic subject. Due to its emotional impact and importance in retelling Japanese history, this film is shown in schools around the country, but is accompanied with Miyazaki’s heartwarming My Neighbour Totoro (Tonari No Totoro) on DVD to lessen its depression quotient.
Considered by Roger Ebert to be ‘the greatest war film ever made’, Grave of the Fireflies does not take sides. Seita and Setsuko’s father is fighting the war on the Japanese side, and the children root for their father, who tells them that the Japanese side will win. Eventually though, the film does not take any side, apart from that of humanity.
Whether war is inevitable or glorious, or whether it is painful and futile is up for the viewer to judge. Without being didactic, Takahata’s masterpiece goes into the heart of war and uncovers the emotionally impactful story of two orphans.
The haunting score by Michio Mamiya is perfectly played with the visuals. It is sure to stay on your mind long after watching the film.
Note that the film is based on a novel by WWII survivor Akiyuki Nosaka, who wrote the semi-autobiographical story as an apology to his younger sister. You might wonder what this apology was for, but for that it is either necessary to read the book or to watch the film.
FINAL VERDICT: Watch what can be called one of the most emotionally affecting films of all time. Watch it to see how realistic animation can be and how animated characters can be more real than actors.
Avoid it if you do not want to be depressed for days. Also avoid it if you expect characters to break out into song every once in a while and if you think animated films are for children and therefore have happy endings.