Take a Drink: whenever the American bombers show up.
Do a Shot: if and when you recognize any of the plane models, you nerd.
Take a Drink: whenever we enter the ghost/spirit/red tinted world.
Take a Drink: pick one: Seita cooks; Seita gives Seisuke a piggy-back ride; Seita’s Aunt mentions working for a living.
Finish Your Drink: when there are no more fruit drops, or you start sobbing, whatever happens first.
By: Sarah Shachat (A Toast) –
Welcome, friends, to the animated film which needs your alcohol the most. Grave of the Fireflies is no cartoon. It is by turns an elating and utterly depressing story of two kids living through the firebombing of Tokyo during World War II. In terms of the logistics of the plot, it absolutely could be live action Oscar-bait. But Isao Takahata and his team of animators use their artistic style to give this film a feeling of beauty and empathy which colors the tragedy of the plot, and ultimately makes the story of these two very small people ripple outward and feel much more meaningful and lasting. Oh, and create lots and lots of beautiful landscapes lit by fireflies. The title’s no joke.
There’s not much to joke about, in fact. The film opens with a family preparing for an air-raid. The kids, Seita and his little sister Setsuke, survive, briefly suffer a humiliating stay with some relatives, and eventually go off to live by themselves in a disused bomb shelter built into a hillside. It seems like a magical camping trip at first, but the realities of living outside for months on end take their toll, and the battle to eat is constant. It’s no spoiler to say the film ends badly for these two, but the ending isn’t the point. Grave of the Fireflies is more about the choices they make and all the piggy-back rides they take, in spite of suffering.
One of the things that really sets Studio Ghibli apart for me is how they allow themselves the indulgence to animate little nothings. The classic example is that moment in Totoro where Miyazaki just lets the film rest on a clear stream rushing over a glass bottle. It’s beautiful and tiny and does absolutely nothing to contribute to characterization or the forward momentum of the story. What it does is elevate the tone of a movie. It make what happens before and after these contemplative moments more meaningful, and part of a wider world. Grave of the Fireflies is that tendency as a whole film. It is beautiful, brutal, brief little pauses, the small story of two siblings caught up in the wider drama of World War II. It is not a children’s movie. It is not particularly a war film, except insofar as it illustrates how the ripples of war bring suffering to places strategic bombing planners would never imagine. Isao Takahata envisions his animation not as a means to transport the audience into a fantasy world, or to enchant children with impossible physics and familiar morals about kindness and friendship. Grave of the Fireflies is not for children. There is precious little kindness to be had.
Plenty of cuteness, though.
What’s so marvelous is that the animation style supports Takahata’s chosen mood and themes; his perspective on the aftermath of the Tokyo firebombings. There’s a moment early on where all the survivors have assembled at a school turned aid-station. Seita and Setsuko are outside by the one remaining bit of jungle gym; their mother, burned beyond recognition, is dying within. And the background looks a bit like Turner set up an easel on the plain outside Hell – there’s this softness and charm to the style of the art, despite the fact it’s completely tan and desolate. The background remains static, unchanging, while Seita does some acrobatic tricks on the bars to distract Setsuke. He stands out so strongly against the desolation you’re somehow able to process both the scope and the tragedy of the destruction and the sort of moment-to-moment swing of emotions the survivors have, the sense of life going on.
It’s not that I don’t think there are problems with this movie, either. I just don’t care. Seita and Setsuke more or less run away from their disinterested relatives because their Aunt treats them as second-class loafers rather than family. But there isn’t the sense of abuse or immanent danger there, just coldness. Given the results of that decision are revealed upfront and are so tragic, I understand why some folks might tear their hair out over the way the film seems to justify it. However, it’s arguably more important that the kids run off simply because the war effort has swallowed any empathy their relatives have for them. That is the first, least remarked on, casualty. The fact Seita and Setsuke are immune to it both make them heroic and damn them.
America: Fuck Yeah?
I’m more sympathetic to the criticism of the way the film ends – the fact that the rest of Seita’s journey is elided in favor of the crescendo of fire and fireflies at Setsuko’s funeral. It sort of shortchanges you at the very end, and makes the story more a sort of Passion of these kids rather than Seita’s journey. The book the film is based on was written by someone who survived the similar experience of having a sibling die of hunger. Having Seita live with the consequences of choices he couldn’t possibly have fully understood as a preteen would, I think, ultimately be more satisfying. But the ending as it exists is poignant enough, and more comforting for its characters. The pivots in and out of the spirit-reunion of the two also allow the viewer to watch each stage of action with the same level of worry and wonder as the kids.
Grave of the Fireflies is not the fun, charming Ghibli flick to curl up with for a chill night in. Not unless you’re also trying to uncover whether or not your roommates are robots, based on the amount of empathy they feel for the characters or something. It is, however, an incredibly moving story about the consequences of war and the power of family bonds. It is beautifully made and beautifully felt. Keep your tissue/beer ratio pretty even, and enjoy.