Every now and then you come across a movie that puts your life and the issues you deal with on a day-to-day basis into perspective. That happened to me today when I walked into the screening for Grave of the Fireflies. Directed by Isao Takahata, this charming animation from Studio Ghibli, the makers of Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle is a poignant and deeply moving tale about a Japanese brother and sister trapped in the hell of World War II.
First off to any parents reading this, if you are ever planning on sitting your youngest down for a quaint animation while you run around the house doing chores, Grave of the Fireflies isn’t the one to pick. I know Studio Ghibli has a reputation for stunning and magical adventures which inspire the imagination and transport you to other worlds, but they are also renowned for thought-provoking features with adult themes, ones you perhaps won’t want your kids exposed to yet.
War is the theme in Grave of the Fireflies. Relentless, cruel and thoughtless war which plagues our two protagonists, a young boy and his very young sister. Maybe that’s what makes the film so uncomfortably realistic. We’ve grown so accustomed to the likes of Ponyo and My Neighbour Totoro, that we forget kids can be thrown into the wrong type of adventure.
Seita and his little sister Setsuko lose their mother in an air raid within fifteen minutes of the film’s running time, and with their father serving in the Japanese navy, they are forced to fight for survival in the devastated landscape of the place they used to call home, with danger at every turn. Food and shelter is hard to come by, their only available relatives see them as a burden on their resources, and with nothing but an upbeat attitude and what little savings their mother left them, the two attempt to brave it out on their own.
Visually, you want for nothing in Grave of the Fireflies. Takahata and his team took extra care to show us just how devastating the Second World War was for Japan. Not just with wide shots of burning neighbourhoods and skies swarmed with planes dropping bombs. It is the minor details which jab at your heart the most effectively (you’ll understand what I mean when the mother dies). The focus on the two children is what really drives that nail into your heart though. Seita’s selfless love and compassion for his little sister is heart-warming, and the perfect set-up for a conclusion you hope will never come to be.
I have said this all along with Studio Ghibli movies, but I would recommend you watch Grave of the Fireflies with the original Japanese dub and English subtitles. I wouldn’t go as far as to say the entire English language dub is bad, but reading the words off the screen is far less jarring. The voice of the youngest child Setsuko is what ruined it for me. I have no idea how old the performer was, but she sounded like an adult pretending to be a three year old, which effectively detracts from your belief in the storytelling. Later films have employed better English-speaking performers to translate the films, but the English dub on Grave of the Fireflies could do with an update.
Unapologetic in telling and uncomfortably realistic, if you only ever watch one war movie in your entire life, let it be this one. No feature I’ve ever seen has made it clearer just how senseless, sickening and above all else, preventable war is.
Grave of the Fireflies is now available on Blu-Ray: