Grave of the Fireflies
A Powerful, Beautiful Movie That Packs an Emotional Punch
This is a movie that will make you sad and possibly break your heart more than a little. "Grave of the Fireflies" is an animated film released in 1988 that is based on a haunting, semi-autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka. The talents of Studio Ghibli and the direction of Isao Takahata manage to transmit the story to the screen without any loss of impact that I could see.
"Grave of the Fireflies" pulls absolutely no punches and some scenes are truly horrifying, but it's done for authenticity, not shock value. It follows the struggles of two Japanese children trying to survive through the end of World War II after the fire bombing of Kobe in 1945. As throughout most of human history, individuals without power are tossed around by the whims and distant decisions of the mighty few like dandelion seeds scattered in the updraft of a wildfire. "Grave of the Fireflies" is full of simple, everyday things and touched with moments of bittersweet peace and normality set against a backdrop of a world of chaos and inhumanity.
This movie is animated but it is not intended for children. It contains deeply disturbing themes including war and starvation and exposes realities many would find extremely upsetting.
While this animated feature is about war, it contains no politics, no justifications, and no national pride. It shows only ordinary children caught in an incredible disaster of human making. The semi-autobiographical nature of the novel it's based on is clear and this film brings that out with a painful authenticity.
People think of bombs and sirens and screaming people when they think of war but that makes up only a very small portion of the film. Instead, it shows how such things destroy innocents and ordinary people much more slowly and cruelly in their aftermath.
Inside ten minutes I stopped seeing the characters as characters and started seeing them as children. When Seita tries to distract little Setsuko from a life crumbling around them it was all too easy to see Seita as any big brother desperately trying to care for his baby sister.
The humanity of Akiyuki Nosaka and his love for his little sister shine through this work and are as beautiful as they are painful. In the end, he's just a little boy doing the best he can when thrust into a situation even an adult would be powerless against.
The medium of animation allows this story to be told visually in ways that would be almost impossible in a live-action film without an enormous budget and massive use of CGI. The imagery and symbolism is positively poetic and the film itself is visually stunning despite animation that some might see as somewhat simplistic.
I love this film because, while it deals with an absolutely horrible aspect of human existence, it does so with a gentle, respectful tenderness. It shows the value of the love found in striving to care for another even when it ends in failure. It shows a type of fallible heroism and many aspects of the human experience as seen through the eyes of children that are seldom portrayed in film.
If you don't have a Blu-Ray player, you'll want a standard DVD version like this one. I don't think the animation needs the higher definition format, but Blu-Ray versions of the movie also exist if you prefer.
Netflix has Grave of the Fireflies as a DVD if you'd prefer to rent rather than purchase it. I've included this Amazon ad so as to provide an image for the page because I can't find any stills or images from the film that I can get permission to use.
I recommend having lots of Kleenex on hand and an extremely funny comedy to watch after watching "Grave of the Fireflies" as a sort of "antidote" to the devastating sadness of the film.
Have you watched Grave of the Fireflies?
Which do you prefer? Subbed or dubbed?
In my opinion, this movie is best watched in the original Japanese with English (or in whatever language is your mother tongue) subtitles because the Japanese voice actors add so much emotion, tone, and inflection to the story. What do you think?