I start this with the same proviso as my The Wind Rises review. I, generally speaking do not like Studio Ghibli films. One day when I have seen the last few that have never passed before my eyes I will explain in more detail why. However, for now, I decided to watch Grave of the Fireflies. Grave of the Fireflies is one of the Ghibli films not directed by Hayao Miyazaki but rather Isao Takahata which, given how people talk, one would assume is a rare breed – not so, only half of the Studio Ghibli films were ever directed by Miyazaki, yet somehow he gets all the glory and is almost synonymous with the production house name.
Anyway, Grave of the Fireflies certainly has a different flavour to the happy-go-lucky Ghibli films one hears most about. Based on the autobiographical short story from Akiyuki Nosaka, Grave of the Fireflies tells the story of two orphans, brother and sister after the bombing of their hometown in the Second World War. It’s not what one expects when you throw an animated film into the DVD player, but then neither is Waltz with Bashir and that’s a fascinating film. In fact, Waltz with Bashir is about the closest I’ve seen to an equivalent film, animation certainly not meant for children and set in a warzone.
Grave of the Fireflies has come under attack precisely for its war-time setting. Many say that it’s an anti-war film, showing the tragedy that young people have to live through as a result of a war they have no part in. Certainly this idea crops up as adults try to force Seita to help the war effort rather than feed and protect his sister, as if the fighting were not only his fault, but his responsibility. Yet more than anything else Grave of the Fireflies seems to entirely ignore the war, letting it just be a backdrop and excuse for the shelter-dwelling existence of these children. The morality of the war, those fighting in it and the concept at large is reduced to a strange juxtaposition that never gets resolved: the war is the source of all their problems and the eventual death of these two children, yet at various intervals the army is portrayed as a glorious institution and Seita is oddly distraught at the defeat of the Japanese army, when that very defeat was his only way out of the wartime famine he’d been living through.
Undeniably there are moments when this film is absolutely beautiful. The first scene where Seita and Setsuko release the fireflies in their home is a wonderful depiction of the innocence of childhood and the joy of small pleasures while living through hell. However, this restrained and elegant mood doesn’t last – the method of animating tears is so jarringly ugly that it breaks you out of the film every time, and these kids do a lot of crying. Yet quite apart from that, the film seems to be created solely to make an audience cry, not necessarily to move them or inspire dialogue about the horrors of war, but just to pull at the heartstrings in a clumsy way. Undoubtedly, you will find yourself crying at the end of it. Undeniably it is very very sad, but this emotion doesn’t come from any great filmmaking prowess. Any film about a five year old dying will make you cry, and most of them don’t need to show you a cutesy montage of said five year old happily enjoying the life she just lost to ram the message home. At best it’s a hamfisted approach to a delicate subject, at worst it’s a manipulative and cynical film that refuses to engage with either the tragedy of war, or the problem of making children believe in the glory of war on any serious level.
- Entertainment: 4/5
- Artistic: 2/5
- Intellectual: 2/5