Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Hotaru no haka, Japan, 89 minutes
Director: Isao Takahata
Writers: Akiyuki Nosaka, Isao Takahata
Production design: Ryoichi Sato
Art direction: Nizou Yamamoto
Music: Michio Mamiya
Editor: Takeshi Seyama
Cast/voices (English version): Rhoda Chrosite, J. Robert Spencer, Amy Jones, Veronica Taylor

Currently ranked at #110 on the user-voted list of the IMDb Top 250, with an average rating of 8.3/10 as of this writing, I suspect Grave of the Fireflies needs little introduction. Conceived originally as the historical/educational half of a double feature and paired with another early and popular effort from Studio Ghibli, My Neighbor Totoro—yes, the two could only be seen in the company of one another in their original release—Grave of the Fireflies has since gone on to occupy its unique position in cinema and animation history as one of the saddest and most powerful features of its kind. Nothing comes close unless you start to consider live-action pictures and even there it stacks up pretty well.

I like it too. The temptation always is simply to erupt with superlatives, but in terms of its cultural impact I'm not sure it can be overstated. Without Grave of the Fireflies you don't get the incinerator scene in Toy Story 3, for one example (or, also from Pixar, the first 10 minutes of Up). The closest analogue might be Art Spiegelman's Maus, which similarly took a vastly underestimated medium (comic books, as opposed to cartoon features) and made practically unprecedented strides in legitimizing it once and for all. Interestingly, they both accomplished this feat by grounding their stories in that great legitimizer of the 20th century, World War II.

As narrative, Grave of the Fireflies is what it is: set squarely in the literary tradition of realism, calculated and unflinching in its depiction of civilian life in wartime. It is easy enough to understand the impact when the basic elements are arranged and considered: war, death, human failing, privation, and ultimately starvation. But it's harder to prepare oneself for the extraordinary experience of seeing it. The 88-minute animated feature alternates effortlessly between beautiful cartoon fantasy set pieces, horror movie dynamics in the guise of scenes of war, and a tiny, wrenching story of a virtually anonymous pair of children destroyed even as we watch.

There are no surprises here. The first line of the movie is spoken in voiceover by the 12-year-old brother, Seita: "September 21, 1945. That was the night I died." It sets many things in motion all at once: the story of how the children died, the emotionally oppressive atmosphere of the movie, and the sense it bears of intricate flashbacks nested inside one another. Everything in this movie has already happened even before we see anything. It is all mediated by perception, memory, and sadness. It gives us that distance, at least.

With World War II winding down, a Japanese family tries to cope with the brutally annihilating air raids of the Allied forces in 1945, then pressing their advantage with punitive fury as they found themselves close to winning the war. The father of the family is away in the military. The mother is plagued with nagging health problems. Besides conventional bombing, they also endure fire-bombing air raids that obliterate whole swaths of towns, villages, and cities, burning them and their residents to cinders. (The nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki go unremarked in the movie.) One such attack leaves the mother dying and then dead, with Seita and his six-year-old sister, Setsuko, left to fend for themselves. They can't, ultimately.

The cinematic  tools Grave of the Fireflies uses so masterfully are already present in its opening shot and scene: the stark, almost expressionistic way that it uses shadows and places its figures, the elliptical, sometimes confusing way that it moves in time, and the color palette, which pervasively skews to the warm end of the spectrum, with browns, oranges, yellows, and reds. It often feels suffocating and hellish. It is suffocating and hellish, let's be clear about that. There are also scenes filled with great natural light and color, and characters filled with joy—the good times, or the fantasies, where hope dwells stubbornly—but they are there for the contrast as much as anything. In one typical scene, Seita and Setsuko enjoy a beautiful and fun day at the beach. Then they find a corpse.

On some level it's undeniable that the picture is heartless about making one care for two people—two children, no less—and then destroying them almost casually. Worse, it is realistic about how the children handle their circumstances. We see it always from their point of view, but we also see that they think like children and make bad decisions. One feels utterly helpless watching things go from bad, which is approximately where the movie starts, to worst imaginable, which is approximately where it ends. There's nothing to do except weep.

So on some level, yes, that may be suspect—pure manipulation intended merely to wring tear ducts. But I think the clue to its most profound intentions—and, indeed, achievement—is in the title, in one of its pervasively recurring images and reflecting themes: the firefly, a bumbling insect, easily destroyed, but with a magical quality of lighting up the dark. "I can see you now," Setsuko gasps in one of the best scenes, when Seita lets them loose at night in the shelter they share. In just that way, Grave of the Fireflies makes me feel I can see Seita and Setsuko now, even in the darkness of (fictional) death and time passed. Even just the image of Setsuko's face, such as the first time we see it here, encountering her again seeing this movie again, can give my stomach a little knot of affection, trepidation, and sorrow. I know what's coming, and I'm happy for the time I get with her.

Original post

Round 2: Afterword
Yes, that's right, I was given two animated movies consecutively for this competition—an interesting challenge indeed. At least I had the advantage this time of having seen and appreciated the movie before. But it was not enough and I lost this round and was eliminated from the tournament. I had known from the first round that I had a tough opponent in "The Honorary Swede" (aka Martin of Martin Teller's Movie Reviews). He had a simple but effective device of boldfacing his references, which set his reviews apart and made them more scannable and fun to read, and he really seemed to know what he was talking about. After the competition was over, and I got a look at his blog, I realized how overmatched I was in terms of movie knowledge.

Alas for Martin, I suspect he might have been happier losing and avoiding the debacle that confronted him in the third round, when he faced off against a personal friend of the moderator. I know, in retrospect, I'm glad it wasn't me. The whole story is here—Martin is very kind to me along the way—with a reasonably deep comments section to round out the spins. And that will have to do, as the posts with the relevant rounds and their comments have been scrubbed from the LAMB site (rounds 3.1-3.3).

So it turned out to be a bit of a shabby episode, but all it really did was reveal again the problems of trying to do things on the Internet. The moderator and his pal weren't the only problem, just a really obvious one. There were others. The voting numbers changed radically from round to round. The voting patterns often looked as if people were arriving in groups to vote, often tilted toward one side. Maybe that was all just coincidences. People were also impatient with how slowly it seemed to progress, especially in the early rounds. It was hard to know which was the better position, top review or bottom. Sometimes the reviews were boring. Weekend traffic dropped considerably. It took a long time. When are we going to get there? My feet hurt.

Always a problem, but even so, I enjoyed giving it a try.


  1. You should have won! And I like this film but whenever I hear ab it I want to mention the lesser known Barefoot Gen. Also worthy.

  2. I still mean to get to Barefoot Gen. Have heard much good about it.