Film Review: Grave of the Fireflies

Spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen any of this.

1988’s Grave of the Fireflies.

One of the most beautiful, affecting films I’ve ever seen, and certainly one that leaps to the forefront of war films (particularly anti-war films). The second thing I want to say is that for anyone who thinks animation is merely in the realm of kids (and even that irks me, as animation ostensibly geared toward children can still be great cinema), then they need to watch this film to be disabused of such an asinine notion. That’s how I want to start off describing the 1988 Japanese anime film Grave of the Fireflies. The premise of the film is that of Seita and his younger sister, Setsuko, in Kobe, Japan, as the United States rains hell from the skies and they try to survive otherwise in the finals months of WWII. Throughout the film, Seita struggles to get food for Setsuko, but amid the hell of war — and yes, that’s one of the primary messages here, that war is hell, and it doesn’t matter if it’s from the point-of-view of the Japanese or the Americans, whatever “side” one is on, war is hell either way — Seita tries to shelter, both literally and metaphorically, Setsuko from that hell. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of another heralded foreign film about war and one of my favorite films, 1997’s Life is Beautiful. In that one, the father tries to shield his son from the hell of the Holocaust. Unlike that one, this one takes the “hell” a little bit further. In fact, a lot further. In that one, it certainly gets serious at times, but there’s a lot of comedy, whereas this, even when the hell is punctuated by genuinely beautiful, happy moments, it’s still within the context of that hell to such an extent that you’re still bracing for more hell, if that makes sense. To put it a different way, I never once thought the boy from Life is Beautiful was in real danger or would actually die.

Look at this stunning animation.

So, yeah, I spent my Christmas Eve weeping over a Japanese anti-war anime film from the 1980s. To explain further, some of the most touching and affecting moments are the silent ones. This film exists in a lot of ways in that silence. In the silent beauty of the war-torn landscapes and aesthetic. In the black rain (yes, black rain from the bombings) that falls upon Seita and Setsuko. In the scene of their mother bandaged and bloodied after a bombing, clearly on death’s door. In the dead-eyed stare of Seita as he tries to hold all of this on shoulders too young to be holding any of it.

I mean, I knew nothing about this film going into it, but I suspected that Setsuko was going to die, and it freaking broke me. Again, Seita is doing everything he can to try to give her any semblance of a life or what we might call today a fun childhood amid literal bombs dropping from the sky from bombers that resemble fireflies to a child’s eye (which is ridiculously sad, too), including one of the most touching scenes in cinema when they go to a beach and frolic about, but in the end, there is only so much a mere child can do up against the machinery of war and the the absences it brings to bear, mainly food. (This is a funny aside, but also a thankful aside: Not even that many generations ago, and within generations of people who are still alive today, butter was a rare, amazing commodity. Sugar, too. And yet, today, I’m lathering butter on toast, waffles, my shoes, with reckless abandon. And sugar is in everything.) It also doesn’t help when his aunt they go live with for a spell is an awful human being who berates and belittles and simply makes a life already difficult all the more difficult. It was maddening. She was a villain within the greater villainy of war.

One of the greatest moments I’ve ever seen in cinema, and it touches upon my point that even this moment was punctuated by the hell all around them, as Setsuko comes upon a dead man’s body.

What really got me was at the end, when Setsuko in her malnourished delirium made Seita rice balls, which were actually rocks, and then is sad when he doesn’t seem to want them. She’s also sucking on a marble she thought was a candy drop. She’s a child! He’s a child!

War is hell. War is freaking hell. It’s absolute madness that anyone anywhere ever thinks war is a good idea or advocates on its behalf. It’s hell on earth, and this film captured what hell on earth looks like for the regular people under its hellfire. Yes, this war hits all my priors, as they say, but it hit them good and hard.

I will also say, I watched this film on Hulu, if you have a subscription, with the English dubbing, which I was skeptical about doing. I tend to prefer the subtitles since that seems a more authentic experience, but the dubbing was actually solid here? I still would’ve preferred subtitles, but the dubbing didn’t distract me like I was anticipating.

Overall, part of me is giddy in that nerdy, cinephile way that in 2020, I’m still watching films I believe to be worthy of an “all-time great” labeling and that move me in such a way, and this one is certainly worthy of such a label, but also, I’m sad. It’s a difficult film to get through, partly because as I mentioned, you pretty much know she’s not going to make it. That inevitability feels baked in at the start, but you can’t take your eyes off of the animation, no matter the hell it’s showing. I highly recommend this to you, no matter your preconceptions about anime/animation.

Another scene that broke me, when Seita allowed himself to cry, finally, at the loss he’s endured and the burden he’s been left to carry.

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