Grave of the Fireflies is a Studio Ghibli film directed and written by Takahata Isao. Its based on the semi-autobiographical account of Nosaka Akiyuki. So, it’s a semi-autobiographical story written by a Japanese man and set in the mid 1940s. This is going to be incredibly sad, isn’t it? Let’s take a look.
Our story opens near the end of 1945 with our protagonist, Seita, dying of starvation in a railway station and that pretty much sets the film’s tone. It goes back to show the events that led up to his demise. Beginning with an air raid in which his mother dies… This film is really depressing, and it continues from there. To the film’s credit, it handles emotion excellently and not just the really depressing and sad moments. It also has some really joyous and happy moments mixed in. Which could have easily created a tonal clash, but they’re done so well that it serves to create a good contrast and to strengthen the emotional impact of the sad moments, even though you know they’re coming, instead. This film has spectacular tone, it’s simultaneously one of the saddest and one of the most bittersweet movies I’ve ever seen. I do have a gripe with it, however. The biggest is that they give away every tragic moment before it happens. They’re still sad, in fact I’d hate to meet the person who could watch this without crying at least once, but it does lessen the impact somewhat. Who knows, maybe they thought it would be way too emotionally crushing if they didn’t give the viewer forewarning. Which may be a valid concern, actually.
What really makes this film work are the characters. The way they respond to things, their faults and so on all have verisimilitude. Unlike a lot of films about children experiencing tragedy, these kids aren’t put on a pedestal as great innocents nor do they have no survival skills whatsoever, they act like real children. Which really adds impact to the tragedy. Let’s be honest, it’s hard to feel sorry for a character who’s too perfect to actually exist or to emphasise with someone’s tragedy when they suffer for their own idiocy. It’s much more poignant when the character has the strengths and faults of an actual person.
The art is what you always get from Studio Ghibli, magnificent. The colours are surprisingly bright and vibrant for a film that spends a good chunk of its time in the middle of a bloody war. The backgrounds are beautifully drawn and the disturbing scenes are really disturbing. If you’ve seen it you know which ones I’m referencing. If you haven’t… you’ll know when you see them.
The cast in this is good. Studio Ghibli maintains its tradition of getting people who are inexperienced, the right ages and who do really well when it comes down to it. The music is absolutely perfect. It’s atmospheric and enhances the tone.
There’s no ho-yay in this one either, or romance at all. The film doesn’t need it.
This movie is powerful, tragic in the best sense of the word and just a masterpiece in general. I suggest watching it with something furry you can hug, because you’ll need the comfort. Final rating: 10/10. Next week I’ll finish Studio Ghibli month with a look at a very recent film, and one of their only movies I haven’t personally seen, From Up on Poppy Hill.