Whatever the virtues of Studio Ghibli films might be, gritty realism isn’t one of them. The studio behind Kiki’s Delivery Service, Howl’s Moving Castle, Whisper of the Heart and others is hardly known for the darkness of its films. But there’s one exception – the extraordinary Grave of the Fireflies, based on the novel by Akiyuki Nosaka.
Set at the end of World War 2, the film follows young boy Seita and his five year old sister Setsuko, as the firebombing of Kobe tears their family apart. With their father serving in the Japanese Navy and their mother killed in the fire bombing that has flattened the city, the pair are forced to move in with a heartless Aunt. But continual clashes over food forces the children to leave and move into a disused bomb shelter, where they attempt to become self-sufficient. But this is easier said than done – their food begins to run out, with local farmers unwilling to sell them more, and Seita is forced to steal crops. Setsuko, meanwhile becomes more and more malnourished. Eventually, the war ends, but is it too late for the pair?
Grave of the Fireflies is pretty heartbreaking stuff. The plight of the two children as they struggle to survive in a world of indifferent or aggressive adults is genuinely moving – the horrors of war shown not just in terms of the destruction but also the dehumanisation of people and the fragmentation of communities. The bombing of civilian targets remains one of the most shameful aspects of World War 2 – literal terrorism from all sides – and this film painfully shows what the effects of such indiscriminate actions are. The film might be set in Japan, but it could really be anywhere.
The animation is realistic by Japanese anime standards – the characters still have exaggeratedly large eyes but the facial expressions are less melodramatic than usual – and the backgrounds have an extraordinary beauty – they look more like water colours than regular animation backgrounds, giving the film a melancholy sense of nostalgia and charm that is offset by the growing and inevitable tragedy. The scenes of the fireflies hovering around the kids have a strange beauty, yet are also ominous – they look too much like the fire bombs we’ve seen raining down on the city to take any comfort from. And when the pair gather up fireflies to light the shelter, only to find them all dead in the morning, it’s an all too obvious omen.
Admirably, the two lead characters – well, Seita at least – are not idealised. He’s still a teenage boy, making bad decisions and having no sense of patience (the pair could have stayed with their unpleasant aunt, after all) while Setsuko has all the impatience of any small child. But showing them as rounded humans just makes the horrible inevitability of what will happen all the worse.
It’s a shame that the film is told in flashback, because it does effectively extinguish any sense of hope straight away – in a sense, the film provides its own spoiler for anyone hoping that the two children will come through this ordeal alive. However, that doesn’t make the film any easier to sit through, and you’d need a heart of stone not to find the slow, entirely preventable deaths of the characters we have come to know and like almost too painful to bear.
Grave of the Fireflies is genuinely remarkable and shattering. Everyone should see it once – I’m not sure how many people will want repeated viewings though, and if you decide to show this to your kids, be prepared for some serious tears and a long talk afterwards.