Unrated. I'm going to try and be as clear as possible. This is animated, but it is disturbingly dark. The imagery is powerful and nothing is offensive, but it is definitely for a mature audience.
DIRECTOR: Isao Takahata
Well, I'm bummed out. I don't think people have left Grave of the Fireflies ever in a different mood. I'm not exactly changing hearts here. (If you did leave Grave of the Fireflies in a weirdly chipper mood, there might be cause for concern.) Studio Ghibli has always been known for its depth and perhaps some of its overt themes, but this movie is a sledgehammer and I think that the topic deserves the sledgehammer it wields.
Considering that Miyazaki didn't direct this one, I am amazed at the parallels between Grave of the Fireflies and My Neighbor Totoro. The setting in terms of time is the big shift between the audiences involved. While My Neighbor Totoro takes place in an unnamed village in Japan during peacetime, Grave of the Fireflies focuses on the fire-bombing by the Allied troops during World War II. Both, however, deal with a child's view of mortality. Morality is hard for kids. Mortality is hard for adults. Mortality is, well, just hard. Now, I'm about to go into some very spoilery stuff, mainly because I'm about to get analytical. My Neighbor Totoro deals with two kids dealing with their mother in the hospital. They deal with their anxieties about her deteriorating health with the supernatural and their reliance on each other. Totoro keeps the viewer in constant suspense about whether or not mother is going to die (she doesn't). Because the movie is aimed at very young audiences, Mother survives with a few scares along the way. But it is an impressive way to look at illness within a family and how to cope with that. Fireflies takes the other perspective. Mother dies fairly early on and Seika has to lie to his sibling. Setsuko goes through the same internal conflict that Mei deals with throughout the film. She grows attached to nature as a companion when her mother can't be there. The fireflies act as a proxy for the supernatural dust mites and provide solace where little can be found. Seika, too, is going through the same conflict, believing that his warbound father will return to them and solve all of their problems. Death has a greater punch in Fireflies. It is the death that I know because it is a death that holds permanence. It is cruel and selfish and Fireflies sells that idea stronger than Totoro does. But both do their jobs. Totoro preps their audience for coping; Fireflies lets us feel the fallout of the coin toss of fate.
Like much of the Ghibli stuff, the imagery is gorgeous. I always feel the need to compare animation studios to other animation studios, but that mainly comes from the sense of attitude that the studios present. Ghibli films always feel more artistic than commercial. Animation isn't limited to children with the Ghibli films. So the beauty perhaps is parallel to the best of Disney, but they are allowed to capture the attractiveness of the unappealing. There is a weird feeling (I'm sure there's a word for it in German) that is fascinating and intriguing about seeing the disgusting presented well. I swear I'm not a monster, but I'm more commenting on the idea that Takahata goes out of his way to show the true nature of death through his attention to detail. There's a closeup shot of maggots feasting on a corpse found on a beach. It is gut-wrenching, but it is also powerful at the same time. Death isn't put on a platform, but rather shown in the mundane. We, as the audience, experience the same reaction that the children do. Death is ugly, but it a part of life and a part of war. These details, perhaps, are the most effective ways of conveying the message that war is disgusting.
I think I've been re-evaluating myself politically and philosophically. Some people would view this as growth; others would view this as flip-floppy. I've been having a really hard time wrapping my head around war and the glorification of it. I still love the war movies that I love. I think I can appreciate them from a cinematic perspective. But I also weirdly now am having a problem with the amount of conflict on this planet and that the lives of innocents are affected by the actions of war. I don't know if I'm full on becoming a pacifist, but Grave of the Fireflies definitely moved me in that direction. The movie is extremely effective and it makes me question all of those who glorify death and honor. I know, I'm over-simplifying the entire issue by taking a black-and-white stance on a very complex concept. The world will always be at war somewhere. But it sickens me. I want to show this movie to all those people who have a lackadaisical attitude toward violence. In that way, I suppose Fireflies is propaganda, but it is effective propaganda. This movie is nearly perfect this execute...
...but it is not perfect. And this is where we have to argue about the international release of a movie versus its domestic content. There are two concerns that I have about the movie that may seem nitpicky, but one of them really is important. I'm going to talk about the really nitpicky thing first. There's a weird narration at the end of the movie tying it to the beginning of the film. The pacing of the film is absolutely perfect. Most of the film is told in flashback as we see the spirits of the children reflect on the last year or so of their lives. There is a candy tin that serves as a reminder for time passing and that is remarkable. Every time the story gets cheery, the candy tin reminds the viewer that things are not going to go well. It dispels any hope for survival in this already bleak world. The weird thing is that the movie almost sticks the landing with the candy tin as a frame of reference in the story. The movie ends with Seika walking to the place where he will die and it is appropriately subltle. And then the narration starts, spelling out exactly what happens. I get the vibe that American distributors thought that Americans wouldn't necessarily get the ending. I never like feeling dumb. I can't tell if this is in the Japanese version, so I'm curious. The other thing is kind of a movie killer: Setsuko's voice. I know that there is a long debate about dubbing versus subtitles and normally I don't care. Setsuko's voice for the American release is absurd. It is clearly an adult doing a kid's voice. Were they trying not to bum out a kid? Setsuko doesn't say anything terribly hard or inappropriate because much of the war is seen through the ignorance of a child. There were multiple times in the movie that I was just pulled out and had to tell my brain to shut up so I could be emotionally vulnerable.
But the film still made me emotional. The relationship between brother and sister is so gripping. Yeah, there are a few tropes that I've seen across different stories, like the grumpy aunt and the boxcar children feel to the whole thing. But considering that the movie was animated, I related to their story more than most war films. I rooted for them, despite the lack of hope established by the flashback. I wanted the world to be a different place and I grew sad for humanity. A lot of people I know don't want to be bummed out. I think I need to be bummed out like this from time to time. It hurts, but it also makes me prayerful. Should you watch this one? Yeah. Sometimes you need to be bummed out.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.