Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

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Fireflies. Fahsans of em.
Fireflies. Fahsans of em.

Twitter Plot Summary: When their mother dies in an air raid, Setsuko must look after his younger sister.

Genre: Animation/Drama/War

Director: Isao Takahata

Key Cast: Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi, Yoshiko Shinohara, Akemi Yamaguchi, Rhoda Chrosite, J Robert Spencer, Veronica Taylor, Amy Jones.

Five Point Summary:

1. That opening with the bombers is 
scary to think about.
2. I’m not so keen on their aunt, she seems like a nasty sort.
3. Fireflies! So many fireflies!
4. Malnutrition – bad.
5. Bleak. So very bleak.

World War 2 has been a defining moment in Japanese culture and cinema, from the atomic horror of the Godzilla series to the less obvious but incredibly violent films of Takashi Miike or the likes of Battle Royale. Studio Ghibli have on occasion made ventures into such territory, but from a more oblique, less obvious perspective. Rest assured, when Ghibli stray away from their more surreal ideas they’re still films worth watching for the power of their storytelling alone. None more so than in Grave of the Fireflies, which starts with the powerful image of B-29 bombers hitting the city of Kobe towards the end of the war in 1945 and progressing into incredibly stark, incredibly powerful territory.

As Studio Ghibli films go it’s perhaps as bleak as they come. Gone are the wild fantasy elements that are typical of their output, and in their place is a real world setting. After their mother dies following the air raid on Kobe, Setsuko and Seita move in with their aunt. As time goes on and rations become scarce, the siblings leave and set up home in an abandoned bomb shelter. here Seita does what he can to support his sister and prevent them both from dying of malnutrition. Yet despite the bleakness of the situation there is always hope. For Setsuko and Seita, it’s the fireflies that live in the shelter that they make their home. They provide a brief period of wonder for Setsuko in particular, but they soon die and, for want of a better term, their light is extinguished and so are Setsuko and Seita’s hopes.

Probably burying their aunt for one snide comment too many.
Probably burying their aunt for one snide comment too many.

The fireflies can be seen as an allegory, perhaps for life during wartime or for the prospects of the inhabitants of Japan post-war. The likelihood of a short lifespan despite your best efforts to survive any longer are perhaps the order of the day. Many describe it as an anti-war film in that it’s about the impact of war on normal people rather than the usual argument of right and wrong. I would say that, whilst not an anti-war film in itself, it does contain anti-war elements. I liken it more to a comment on the human spirit, attempting to make it through events despite the adversity you face, including the failure of those in charge to realise the full impact war has on its subjects and the ensuing hopelessness that will likely follow. This is all the more pertinent to the Japanese following what happened to them in WW2, but whichever way you look at it, it’s still powerful stuff.

Director Isao Takahata has said the film is in fact intended to make the younger generation in Japan aware of the plight faced by their parents/grandparents during the war, and I would hope that it succeeded on that level, but for the rest of us there is plenty of depth to the story and you can peel back several layers of meaning from multiple viewings.

Favourite scene: Where Setsuko and Seita first encounter the fireflies. Magical.

Quote: “Why must fireflies die so young?”

Score: 4.5/5

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