American animation mostly relies upon formulaic pastry ala Disney, Dreamworks, and television. But Grave of the Fireflies is far different; a transcendent masterpiece in its own right. In the latter part of World War II, a boy and his sister, orphaned when their mother is killed in the firebombing of Tokyo, are left to survive on their own in what remains of civilian life in Japan. Not exactly the way to reach someone who just dumped Shrek in front of their kids. Grave of the Fireflies does not once flinch from the direst possibilities of human existence, but portrays misery in such a way that we never stop believing this story is worth telling.
It’s the relationship between the two central characters that makes Grave of the Fireflies such a strong film. Here you have two innocent people thrust into a horrific situation. The movie focuses almost exclusively on two children who become casualties in the Kobe bombing. Seita and Setsuko lose their home, then lose their mother. They travel to the home of a distant aunt, who turns out to be distant in more ways than one. Increasingly frustrated, the aunt coldly discards the children; they lose their surrogate home and turn to a hillside bomb shelter. Perhaps the film’s only drawback is that, being such an emotional journey, you rarely feel like revisiting it. I first watched Grave of the Fireflies many years ago, but since then, this review has been the only excuse I’ve had to rewatch it. Even now, several years and several vewings later, its suffering and peacefullness remain a deeply touching experience.
The quality of animation is fantastic, and that it still looks so good even after all these years is to Ghibli’s credit. Grave of the Fireflies doesn’t attempt the realism of Princess Mononoke, but paradoxically it is the most realistic animated film I’ve ever seen – in feeling. Grave of the Fireflies puts a human face on the civilian population of Japan during the war, something not many movies have done, and none have done as well. Moreover, it manages to do so in a painful and realistic manner.
Grave of the Fireflies is a touching and extremely painful movie to watch, but it’s not an idle tearjerker. This movie is direct, honest, thought provoking, and worth watching by anyone. It isn’t your typical anime movie, there aren’t any breasts or blood, and there aren’t any large mecha robots, but what it does offer is a personal and emotional account of how determined the human spirit can be and how war ultimately devastates lives and destroys families.
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