Frequently heartbreaking and always poignant, Grave of the Fireflies warrants a spot among the most effective of all war films. It’s a great testament to director Isao Takahata that we rarely remember that we’re watching an animated picture. The animation never decreases the atmosphere or power in the slightest—in fact, the remarkable lighting and use of reds enhance its power by precisely capturing the mood. Cinema’s magic can shine through from many angles, and Grave of the Fireflies easily carves out its own unique niche. Though completely different in style, Grave of the Fireflies can match Miyazaki’s finest work, and deserves the bushels of praise heaped upon it.
Seita and Setsuko’s sibling relationship form Grave of the Fireflies’ core, a core riddled with pain. The story begins in a post-war train station, where a boy lies dying amongst many other victims of the times. He’s ignored by the janitors, signifying the acceptance of seemingly traumatic episodes and events by the Japanese in post-war Japan. I’m not sure the “end-at-the-beginning” device is really necessary here—Setsuko’s absence from the station makes the film’s conclusion pretty evident about fifteen minutes in—but it’s a tribute to Grave’s composition and execution that the picture is nonetheless wrenching throughout. The children’s development is the primary reason; their bond is startling authentic, right down to charming little details like Seita swinging his sister around or Setsuko gingerly licking fruit drops, conserving them out of respect for her brother’s travails in finding food. As the story progresses, Seita is forced into a father’s role of sorts (their father is away fighting for the Japanese navy), but he never loses his unique brotherly perspective—in fact, his remarkable adaptation to their circumstances and his perseverance at such a young age is stunningly moving in and of itself.
One of the films’ most agonizing aspects is how close the children come to conquering the tremendous adversity that they face throughout. Just before Setsuko’s death, Seita discovers at the bank that the war has finally ended, and that Japan will finally begin to return to normal. Ecstatic, he rushes back to the bomb shelter where he and Setsuko have made their makeshift home, only to find her beyond aid. Seita could taste their salvation on the tip of his tongue…and the inevitability that all their gutsy determination will be for naught is difficult for us to accept. Setsuko’s fascination with the fireflies throughout serves as a shattering metaphor for light, something which she finds in her brother but sadly not in any larger scope. As a whole, Japanese cinema values children’s intelligence far more than other cultures, and Grave of the Fireflies is a prime example. Ultimately, the picture’s respect for Seito and Setsuko’s ability to fend for themselves results in a far more powerful piece of cinema than if they’d been portrayed as typical scared kids.
Grave of the Fireflies often comes close to overdosing on treacle, but normally displays just enough restraint to tiptoe around a sappy bombardment. The final montage of Setsuko’s ghost dancing around the bomb shelter could be construed as manipulative, but it’s done in such a tender fashion (not to mention we’ve already developed a strong connection to her character) that my heartstrings never felt yanked. Still, there are a few moments that are too obvious, moments that simply aren’t needed when most of the film is such an impressive portrayal of war-ridden Japan and Seita and Setsuko’s struggles. If it seems that I’m linking the children’s names in practically every description, it just demonstrates how effectively their relationship is presented. Grave of the Fireflies is both a great film and an important one, a picture that must be seen at least once. Just be sure to have a box of tissues handy near the sofa.
97/100 [upgraded from the mid-70's when I first wrote this review]