In preparing for my eventual list of the 100 Best War Movies I still have to see a few movies that potentially could make my list. One of those was “Grave of the Fireflies”. It has been on my “to be watched” list for years now. I was not able to find it on any of my usual viewing options and did not want to purchase it. To tell the truth, I did not want to go to a lot of trouble and expense to watch a movie that I had learned was very depressing. However, when I heard that it would be appearing in a special showing at a nearby theater, I decided that it was a chance I could not pass up and remain true to my mission.
“Grave” is based on a semi-autobiographical short story by Akiyuki Nosaka. He lost his sister to malnutrition during the closing stages of WWII. Nosaka was skeptical of making the story into a live action movie, but director/writer Isao Takahata convinced him that animation would work. The movie was shown on a double-bill with the family friendly “Totoro” which impacted its popularity because the audience did not react well to the transition to the opposite of “Totoro”. Many people left after the feel-good opening film rather than have their mood crushed.
The film opens three weeks after Japan surrendered. A starving young boy lays in a railway station. The movie then flashes back to happier times in the city of Kobe. Setsuko and his four year-old sister Seita are living with their mother as their father fights in the Japanese navy. When B-29 bombers drop incendiary bombs on the city, the subsequent fires destroy the city and lead to the death of their mother. They are forced to go live with their aunt. She is more like a wicked stepmother than an aunt. Eventually, Setsuko and Seita are on their own living in an abandoned bomb shelter next to a lake. Bombs are no longer a problem, but starvation is.
I have to admit I was disappointed in the movie. I don’t like depressing movies, but if I see one, I expect to be depressed. I really thought I would be crying when I left the theater. After all, the movie is considered to be one of the most depressing war movies ever made. It’s not like it did not have the potential to be a classic tear-jerker. The pair of kids are very appealing and Seita is adorable. I saw a lot of my grandkids in her so I was invested in the character. The problem is that after the horrendous opening, the pair do not have a particularly terrible time. Their stay with their aunt is more of an aggravation than a catastrophe. The time by the lake is not horrific. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop because you know there will not be a happy ending, but when it comes it is tepid. You can argue that Nosaka was simply being true to the book, and in fact he has stated that the movie is not meant to be anti-war. This seems to be a ridiculous statement about a movie that deals with the results of a fire-bombing that comes off as a war crime. Nosaka claimed that the movie was actually a comment on the effects of isolation from society. I just feel that an anti-war activist like Nosaka blew the opportunity to have people leave the theater saying “never again!” instead of sniffling over “why did the cute little kid have to die?”
The movie is well made. Nosaka decided not to go experimental with the animation. The one tweak was the use of brown outlines instead of the standard blacks to give the film a softer look. With that said, “Grave” is not memorable like “Spirited Away”, for instance. The recurring use of fireflies (which represent souls) is a nice touch and there is an awesome scene where Setsuko and Seita use some to light their shelter. There is also tremendous product placement for Sakuma fruit drops. The flash backs work, but the opening that leads into them distracts from the flaws in the characterization of Setsuko. I hate to be a jerk about this and I am not positive that Nosaka did not plan it this way, but Setsuko is to blame for the death of his sister. I know he is just a teenager and they are prone to mistakes, but I didn’t get the impression that that was a theme of the movie.
“Grave of the Fireflies” is universally acclaimed and is a must-see. However, it is not as good as the similar “Barefoot Gen”. It is definitely not a feel-good movie, but it does pull its punches. I do not think it is one of the 100 best war movies ever made.