I’m not at all convinced that I can write an adequate review about this
film. It just… saddened me. I’ve wept before while watching films, but this time the tears just flowed. I have never been so upset. The film touched me very deeply and painfully, but apart from that, I’m not sure if it managed to convey anything else. Maybe it didn’t try hard enough, or I wasn’t sensitive enough to feel it. One way or another, it doesn’t matter…
Grave of the Fireflies is a drama - of everything that I’ve watched thus far, I think this is the film that, to my mind, best fits the definition. Its message is nothing special, likewise its plot. It begins by showing us the lowest end of one long and fatal spiral towards the very bottom of existence, and then works its way up to show us how it has come to that. And it does that through the cruelest means possible – by showing us the destruction of something innocent and helpless. The whole film becomes clear to the viewer in the first three minutes but this too doesn’t matter.
The story starts unfolding sometime at the end of the Second World War, and it’s based on the autobiographical novel Hotari no haka (Grave of the Fireflies) by Akyuki Nosaka. The author himself describes the book as an attempt to reconcile himself with his feeling of guilt. In the coastal town of
The big brother does everything in his power to save Setsuko from hunger, but in the turmoil of war, under the constant threat of bombardments, without a job and a way to earn their bread, misery grips the two children by the throat. And as the little girl, so full of life, starts to wane and waste away, the love and the wholehearted devotion the two nourish for each other, and their desire to find happiness in spite of all the vicissitudes of fate, transform the movie into an immensely heavy and difficult emotional experience. Because powerless love and doomed happiness hurt.
The truth is that I am not certain if Grave of the Fireflies, in itself, is a truly powerful and touching movie, but since I have a little sister myself, it was impossible not to take it somewhat more personal. The whole tragedy of life falling apart, the inability to find a way out of the maelstrom…The lack of willpower, perhaps, or maybe just the helplessness and simplicity of the child - Seita himself is not capable of taking care of himself and Setsuko, despite his desire to be the shoulder for her to lean on. The film creates the sensation of desperation and misery in a way that is incredibly real. Maybe the drama is in excess sometimes, maybe it isn’t - what matters is that one can really feel it. This is not the tragedy of the world, of humanity, not even of love. There is no heroic sacrifice (although what Seita is trying to do for his sister, is probably immeasurably more heroic than a thousand space rangers blowing themselves up in an embrace with a deadly alien), there is not even an enemy. Actually, no, that’s not true. There is an Enemy, the most terrifying and relentless of them all - reality.
This is the impression that Grave of the Fireflies creates, without trying to lay any serious stress on it. Reality marches on, inexorable, trampling upon the weak, deservedly or not, it does not matter. Faces turn away and refuse to give up their sustenance, even for money. Others feel nothing for the little barefoot girl, even as death peers from inside uncomprehending eyes. Or maybe that’s the reason for their callous looks. But it is here that we’re struck by the greatest horror - the film does not judge these people, and it takes away from us the possibility of doing it ourselves. These people… we can understand them. They, too, are the victims of that same reality, bowing, bending, breaking under Fate’s blows. And that they refuse to reach out to the ones who are even more miserable than they, does not make them bad, or evil, or even weak. It makes them human. And, watching this, all we can do is to clench fists in grief and feeble outrage. Because, in its essence, Grave of the Fireflies is one slow, but unwavering and certain road to perdition.
The film takes a rather aggressive stance at the viewers, and touches them in the simplest, oldest and surest way - by showing them a child’s suffering. This is something that, under normal circumstances, irritates me, because it is a cheap and easy way of ensuring the viewer’s emotional involvement - almost as epidermally superficial as tickling people in order to get them to laugh. But, for some reason, Grave of the Fireflies did not irritate me at all, what with all its coarse manipulative methods, that I did not fail to notice throughout the whole movie. It is just that it is not meant to manipulate, it is not sweetened or smoothened in any way in the sorrow it expresses. It makes no attempt whatsoever to make us like it by making us cry. It is indeed so subdued in its sadness that one has the feeling that the director himself (Isao Takahata, a long-standing colleague of Hayao Miazaki) was suffering, while making the film. And he doesn’t impose that nagging feeling of a dilettant, trying to serve the viewer cheap drama, achieved through amateurish methods. Rather, he seems to be a man that wants us to live through a heart-rending tragedy with him. The wonderful music contributes to the whole experience, every theme fitting perfectly the viewer’s emotional state in every given moment of the film.
The animation is incredibly realistic and devoid of any excessive shapes or colours in that respect. Along with the other elements, it builds a story that is real. Not only through all of this does the film appear entirely truthful to us, but through the little details as well. Gestures, words, grimaces… The character of Setsuko is perfection incarnate, and this is not an overstatement. She is a four-year-old girl of flesh and blood (even the girl who gave her voice to Setsuko - Ayano Shiraishi - was at that time (1988) only five years old). Every word of hers, every gesture, reaction, are something I have seen in reality, and something I have had to deal with. I have never before, in an animated movie, seen such a brilliant rendering of the character of a little child. Honestly. Seita, although a bit more ordinary, is nonetheless just as real and alive, and his struggles, fuelled by desperation, arouse not only pity, but also genuine sympathy. Because we know that not only we wouldn't have been different in such circumstances, but we would have probably done much worse. Which only serves to heighten the pathos of the film.
And at the end… the light of the fireflies flickers and dies, and so do they. Fleeting and feeble, a starlet that burns out to oblivion, leaving trace nowhere but in the heart of innocence, itself a small, evanescent thing. A light that, glowing, has unveiled nothing but its own woeful existence. And the small, nameless grave of the firefly, that no one will ever come to.
Because a firefly means nothing to the world…