Grave Of The Fireflies

Grave Of The Fireflies

*****

Reviewed by: Scott Macdonald

"September 9th, 1945... That was the day I died."

Great movies cannot depress me, no matter how sad they are. There are few that can penetrate my thick shield of cynical armour, those that help me become a better person. Kurosawa's magnificent Ikiru, a film about finding meaning in life gives me hope. Grave Of The Fireflies is another. It is one of the most shattering anti-war movies ever made, a masterpiece so deeply sad and unrelenting that some may find it hard to watch. It is film about the idea of loss, finding a reason to live.

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Seita and Setsuko are siblings, who lose their mother in a devastating, unflinchingly frightening air raid during the attacks on Japan in World War II. If that wasn't enough, they try to survive with their aunt, who takes their food and their mother's precious kimonos to trade for more food. The children protest, but she refuses to cook for them until they apologise. Seita, the older brother, aged about 12, takes his little sister to live in a shelter, where they rely on themselves alone, a harsh task in a war-torn country that offers no relief.

Grave Of The Fireflies is a harrowing experience to watch, inspiring more than sadness. Indeed, I felt nothing short of grief. It is an intrinsically beautiful film, its hand-drawn animation among the finest I have ever seen, stretching the emotions to the purest of empathy. I say pure, since it wraps itself around the hearts of the audience without effort. Watch the minimalism, the way the children behave like children, the younger Setsuko dancing among the fireflies, reflecting light on to her, the slow rhythm of storytelling, the painted backdrops. It is a film that can be viewed as artistry, as well as a great narrative.

The animated form of flat colours, stripped of photographic detail, lends the film an abstraction that dives deep. If this were live action, the form itself would remind us of actors giving performances, merely pretending to suffer. As animation, it bypasses these artificialities to drive home one idea: what it means to fall and to struggle.

Seita and Setsuko act like children, devoid of a grown-up's emotional maturity and learned life-skills. Fate deals them cruel blows, as much as Seita's foolish pride; and his actions and inactions. I wept openly, feeling the anguish as Seita cannot find enough food to keep his sister alive and experience the horror when we realise that Setsuko has made rice balls out of mud. I gasped out loud, "Oh, God! What have you DONE!?" It was at this moment that I knew the film had penetrated beyond its artistic dimension into something special.

Sprinkled throughout the film is a humanity, beating against the terror and the despair, teaching us not to think of war in terms of ideals, or politics, but in the knowledge that suffering strips away the veneer of "us versus them".

Reviewed on: 13 Dec 2005
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Isao Takahata's fiercely beautiful anti-war animated classic. Out for 25th anniversary re-release.
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Director: Isao Takahata

Writer: Isao Takahata. based on the novel by Akiyuki Nosaka

Starring: Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi, Yoshiko Shinohara, Akemi Yamaguchi, J Robert Spencer, Rhoda Chrosite, Veronica Taylor, Amy Jones

Year: 1988

Runtime: 93 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: Japan

Festivals:

Leeds 2014

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