Grave of the Fireflies

In every war, there are innocent victims on both sides, regardless of the politics involved. Grave of the Fireflies is a story about two such victims in the aftermath of World War II. It is a deeply moving, disturbing film that changes the way we look at war and changes the way we look at the medium of animation.

Our main character dies in the opening sequence of the film. Instantly, we start becoming prepared for the story to follow. We move in flashback to the moments where our troubles begin, back to the firebombing of a Japanese village by the Allied forces. We see Seita, a boy of perhaps 14, and his much younger sister, Setsuko, as they escape the flames only to find that their mother has not been spared. With Father away in the Japanese navy, the two go to live for a while with an aunt. Overburdened by them, however, she becomes violently embittered toward them, and Seita realizes that their only hope lies in living on their own. For a while, escaping to the nearby countryside gives them a brief respite, until cold and hunger begin to set in permanently. Seita tries to provide for them both as best he can. However, despite his best intentions, without food or home, Setsuko is no match for the bitter circumstances they find. Perhaps a better world awaits them.

Grave of the Fireflies is more than a simple tragedy. Perhaps it's the hauntingly beautiful imagery that lays down a counterpoint to the story. Perhaps it's the small triumphs the siblings share that, despite our foreknowledge of coming events, give us hope that somehow they can make it. Perhaps it's the emotions that all the characters experience that are so real--no one is immune from greed and self-preservation, even at the expense of loved ones, or the guilt that these feelings bring. Perhaps, for American audiences, it's staring into the face of a supposed enemy and seeing ourselves instead. For all these reasons and far more, Fireflies is transcendent, not merely a tragedy but something far greater that taps into our own consciousness.

This and several other Japanese films about WWII, such as Barefoot Gen, have been attacked for not discussing the role the country played in WWII. It is true that Japanese film is virtually silent about the actions taken against the Allied forces, and perhaps at some point it would be a topic for discussion. However, that in no means harms this film, as it could be set in virtually any war zone, virtually any place. The film is not about Japan, even--it is about the blameless bystanders caught in war. With the recent flare-up of tensions between Israel and the Palestinians and the hundreds of innocent lives lost on both sides as an example, this film's message is, unfortunately, always relevant.

Isao Takahata, friend of Hayao Miyazaki and second in command at the great Studio Ghibli, has made a film that in some ways bests anything his ever-popular comrade has created. Fans of Miyazaki's style will be impressed by the always perfect artwork, but even those unimpressed by animated features will be hard pressed to find much fault here. Although anime gets shown in art theatres around the country, more due to the niche interest than the quality of the pictures shown, Grave of the Fireflies is actually a film worth calling art.

For those interested in more, I strongly recommend seeing the picture, then reading some of the commentaries on the Internet about it. Roger Ebert's review at is a good place to start. Grave is a unique tearjerker. Where most films set up a good cry through less-than-subtle manipulation of the audience, Fireflies creates the same emotion by simply breaking your heart.

Grave of the Fireflies -- nothing objectionable, but difficult subject matter -- A