What can you say about an animated movie that brings despair and
continually makes your eyes well up with tears? And this is no one
tear-jerking scene like Bambi or E.T.; the poignancy hits early on, and the tears flow from the second half all the way through the end like no other war movie I can recall. In fact, the images become so engrained that pure melancholy continues on long after you've turned off the DVD player. I was still feeling grief the following morning.
So if nothing else, Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no haka) works!
That title immediately flies off the tip of my tongue as soon as anyone asks me to name the best anime of all time or to name the best war movies. And the film nearly was never made! Producers thought that no one would want to see such a downer of a movie, but a small window of opportunity to make the film opened for writer/director Isao Takahata, and he jumped on it. Often restrictions force artists into greater creativity—such is the case here when Takahata was denied a longer time frame to craft the project.
Like most anime, Grave of the Fireflies contains beautifully painted pastel backdrops, clever camera movement panning the scenery, stylized people who emphasize universal prototypes, and great attention to detail that is often glossed over in American animation in favor of creating "action" or cutesy distractions for comic relief. Don't expect Disneyesque humorous distractions in this heartbreaking film or sharply drawn anime action and blood, but you'll be rewarded with a lyrical heap of humanity.
Takahata's animated feature prepares the audience for tragedy since the opening sequence shows the male protagonist dying in a subway station, and his spirit tells the story via flashback. It doesn't take long before the anime style becomes familiar, making these characters more emotionally real than live actors.
The story takes place in the Japanese port city of Kobe during WWII, when Americans were dropping firebombs on the urban centers to render them inhabitable and to disrupt the economy. Teenage Seita (voiced by Tsutomu Tatsumi) looks after his five-year old sister Setsuko (voiced by 5-year old Ayano Shiraishi). Their father serves in the Japanese navy, and their mother, already weakened with a heart condition, falls to a bombing and lies in the makeshift emergency room. Their home and neighborhood have been destroyed, so the children pack up their few provisions and head to an aunt's home.
She takes them in at first but soon grows bitter about feeding them, so Seita decides to take his sister to a hillside cave to live. Now the real contest for survival begins, with a continual quest for food. Seita first relies on bartering and money for rice but, finding this difficult in war ravaged Japan, he turns to more creative and illegal methods.
Although the eventual outcome is expected, Tekahata packs so much humanity into the characters that you are completely taken in. Small gestures like a certain turn of the head when Seita washes his face, the tearful body language of Setsuko longing for her missing mother while her brother tries to cheer her up, and just the way she takes off her garments before running to the ocean all make these characters real. Then come heartwrenching scenes like Setsuko offering rice cakes made of mud to her brother or when she carefully buries the dead fireflies, symbolically standing in for her mother.
A well-known story in Japan, the historically accurate Grave of the Fireflies is based on Nosaka Akiyuki's semi-autobiographical novel. He grew up during these times and had a sister who died of hunger. In current times, where war with Iraq is threatened and many Americans revel in the glory that was once the Gulf War video game supplied by CNN, it's important to remember that real flesh and blood children are also involved�ironic that the most effective messenger is animated.