IMDB #177 Grave Of The Fireflies

Today we make only our third foray into the animated world- a glaring lack, if you ask this guy. For some reason our two-dimensional friends in the kiddie doghouse, despite the ability of any medium to touch with grave sincerity upon the human condition.

Case in point is 1988's affecting, heart-breaking Grave Of The Fireflies.

The Key Players:

Isao Takahata is the co-head of Studio Ghibli with Hayao Miyazaki, and behind an equally impressive body of work. He seems to span more ranges than his friend and collaborator- anti-war, romance (Only Yesterday), comedy (My Neighbors the Yamadas), and one film, Pom Poko, in Miyazaki's eco-fable wheelhouse.

He adapts an autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka.

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The Story:

September 21, 1945: pre-teen boy Seita, his clothes worn to rags and his stomach long empty, dies in a train station- with his last breath he calls his little sister's name, "Setsuko."

Her spirit soon appears to join his, in a field of dancing fireflies, and they take some sort of spirit-train back to the city of Kobe, to flash us back several months.

March 17, 1945: Kobe is firebombed by American B-29s. Seita and Setsuko survive unharmed near the beach, but their mother is severly burned and dies soon thereafter. Their father away in the navy, they move in with a distant aunt, who does nothing but complain about the extra burden, sell their dead mother's things for food (everything being strictly rationed), and needle Seita to get a job.

Seita decides to move with his sister into an abandoned bomb shelter, and they have fun playing camp until their food runs out. Even with his mother's entire bank account, no one is willing to sell them food due to the widespread shortages and rationing in Japan as the war draws to a hopeless end. Setsuko begins to suffer from severe malnutrition.

The Artistry:

The first time I saw Grave Of The Fireflies, I knew little more than it's title and production studio, and I was punched straight in the gut by the tragic, kids'-eye-view of war. TO be fair, the same trick was pulled on the Japanese public: it was bundled with Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro as a double feature on release, and the family audience was rather taken aback.

But it takes all of the Ghibli hallmarks- powerful anti-war messages, beautiful scenery, adorable character design, nicely designed scores- and puts them to work getting us to care about these two orphans, even though we know they'll be starving to death later.

It's powerful, but it's not a polemic- other than a few generic comments rooting for his father to kick the other side's asses, Seita doesn't give much thought to the Americans- just the next meal.

And watching this film does make you hungry- as Setsuko blearily sucks on a marble instead of candy and makes riceballs from dirt, one can do little but be grateful for their own circumstances in life. Plus fresh white rice is just always delcious.


Uh, they both die. I guess the spoiler barrier isn't worth much today. Also we see their spirits look at the modern city lights of Kobe, content that there's less war-torn starvation in their hometown.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

I say a little higher, if only to add more animation in the mix, especially your rare non-Pixar, non-Disney entries.

The Legacy:

The novel was made live-action style for tv in 2005, with interest no doubt piqued by the anime version.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Man I looked everywhere for the part with the actual fireflies, but no luck: there are dozens of clip videos inexplicably set to random songs (most ridiculously to Evanescence). So instead, the somber postscript to the film.

Leftover Thoughts:

-Setsuko has a tin of her favorite hard candy during the film, which is apparently a real brand that occasionally uses her image on containers. It's as if to say "Sakuma Drops: Starve To Death A Little Slower!"

Coming Up...

176. The Gold Rush

175. Casino

174. The Grapes Of Wrath

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