Let’s just start with how I’m planning to recover from seeing this movie. First, I watched the first opening to K-On!!. Big, happy, cute pop number performed by cute and clumsy girls. Light, fluffy, like the best eggs or blankets. After that, I compared that to the second opening of the season. Dave was right; the second one is better. Not that either of them are crap. It’s just that–yeah. And now I’m listening to Polysics, who are Japanese Devo on steroids, skipping their ritalin and cranking out the happy tunes. All of this is because Grave of the Fireflies is one of the most powerful war time tragedies ever made. It’s nice to remember after seeing something so human and emotionally engaging that people are sometimes kind.
As this movie opened with young Seita on the floor of a train station, homeless and about to die, clutching a can filled with bone fragments and ashes, you should likely gather that this movie starts bad and gets worse. War is not kind. War is not glamourous. War is not heroic. What it is is a brutal, merciless failure of the governments to protect their citizens. All war is ceaseless brutality with no point and no redemption. While it should be obvious to us now, after the entire military history of the world through the last century has been catalogued and recorded for all of us to see, it’s seeing a film like Grave of the Fireflies to remind you of how badly war just plain sucks.
War sucks worst for citizens Seita and his little sister Setsuko. The movie is mainly Seita’s extended flashback to the story of how he and his little sister were forced out of their home by an air raid and went to live with an aunt on their mom’s side. In the air raid, their mother was so badly injured and burned beyond recognition that her death should be seen as merciful. Living in an elementary school, taken over for use as an emergency hospital, covered in bandages and flies–it’s a blessing that she died before the rest of the movie took place.
Over the course of fewer than ninety minutes, Seita’s options are crossed off by all of the people around him. First living with an aunt, she convinces him to trade his mother’s kimonos for a toh of rice. When he does, she forbids him from having any, giving it all to her daughter and husband because “they are working for the country, while you laze about the house”. I’m going out on a limb here, but Seita isn’t a teenager yet. Setsuko isn’t even ten yet. How, exactly, do you expect them to help the country after their mother’s died and they’re homeless? Can’t you at least give them the food they earned? Seita still hasn’t told Setsuko that their mother died in the hospital.
He keeps her happy by bribing her with a tin of candies he found in one of the abandoned houses. Except I don’t know if it was really abandoned, or he just stole it. You know, either way, I’m with him. War is hell beyond anything else, and if someone isn’t allowed to steal from me after their mother has died and they now have to take care of their eight or nine year old sister–you know what? I’d take them in and feed and clothe them for free. I think any decent human being would. But I don’t really know if I would do that, as I’ve never lived through a war. And war, being hell, changes you in many fundamental ways. Caring and humanity go out the window, replaced by cold-hearted greed and selfishness.
Part of the disarming nature of this movie is the homemade, handspun feel of the animation. The animation is by Studio Ghibli, the studio that brings you all of Hayao Miyazaki’s work. Their style isn’t one to shift, even leaving its mark on episode 11 of Neon Genesis Evangelion, which makes for a homey, inviting look into the depths of despair accompanying war. Seita is a handsome boy, Setsuko is one of the cutest little girls I’ve seen. Their suffering is as real and affecting as the writing is accurate and haunting, thanks to brilliant animation from Ghibli.
I’m glad that Japan doesn’t have the same cultural hang-up we do where because it’s animated by westerners, it must be for children. This is one of the last movies I ever want my children, your children or children in general seeing. It’s a mature story, told by adults, meant for the kind of adults who have the power to stop this endless fighting. For some reason, animation has been struggling to declare itself an art form in the west, on an equal footing with live-action. When a feature film is capable of this kind of power and truth within fewer than ninety minutes, driving home an urgent message for everyone involved on either side of a world conflict, does it really matter how it was made?
The story of Setsuko and Seita is likely one of the greatest in film history. A cynical part of my mind asks me if such mawkish sentimentalism is really deserving of high praise for essentially just making everything worse until it stops. I know what that is. It’s the voice of denial, trying to tell me the movie I just saw didn’t make me cry once. Trying to tell me that Grave of the Fireflies is really only worth a three and a half star, because, after all, I’ve seen the moral that war is bad before and since this movie’s release. It’s not new, and it’s not news. It’s something we all know.
But Grave of the Fireflies portrays the human consequences of war and suffering with no pandering to sentimentality. It isn’t tugging on heartstrings to make money, as my brother once callously suggested Pixar do when they make their films. It’s telling a story. The story happens to be greatly emotionally involving–so much so, you will wish to deny it touched you afterward. The greatest war movie is the one that makes the consequences of war stick in your mind, despite your continued denial. Grave of the Fireflies does just that. FOUR STARS