“September 21st, 1945. That was the night I died.”
With that punch to the gut begins perhaps the most emotionally devastating film in the history of animation. The magnum opus of Isao Takahata, Grave of the Fireflies represents for many the legitimacy of anime as an art form. Grave of the Fireflies is a testament to great moviemaking and reminds us that anime is a medium, not a genre.
Grave of the Fireflies is one of those rare anime films that has been embraced by mainstream critics, who laud it as one of the greatest war films ever. These mainstream endorsements cut both ways, because while these pieces promote anime, they also tend to feel condescending. Every western review of a Studio Ghibli release inevitably includes a line of incredulity that a cartoon can evoke emotion. On the other hand, the Japanese don’t always make it easy. We here at Colony Drop love Baoh, but it ain’t exactly high art.
Roger Ebert, one of the few mainstream critics who really seems to “get” anime, is Grave of the Fireflies‘ greatest champion in the west. He was featured on CPM’s now sadly out-of-print version of the film, and wrote about it in his Great Movies essay series.
Ebert’s an astute guy, and he makes a keen observation in the CPM interview: if Grave of the Fireflies were live action, it probably would be in the style of a film by either Vittorio De Sica or Roberto Rossellini, two great Italian neorealists. He was quite right: much of Isao Takahata’s work shows a heavy neorealist influence.
Takahata’s counterpart at Studio Ghibli is, of course, Hayao Miyazaki, and it’s easy to lump all Ghibli films into one category. Indeed, before all this stuff was easily googleable, many fans assumed Fireflies was a Miyazaki film. Though they share the same Ghibli look, the two directors are stylistic polar opposites. Miyazaki creates elaborate worlds of fantasy, while Takahata reproduces, with stunning accuracy, the real world. (Apropos polar opposites, Grave of the Fireflies was released on a double bill with My Neighbor Totoro.)
The influence of neorealism is evident in Grave of the Fireflies. Instead of a sweeping overview of the war, the film centers itself on a young brother and sister attempting to stay alive after their home is firebombed and their mother is killed. The war as a whole is barely touched on, and the word “America” isn’t used once. The B-29 bombers are treated more like a natural disaster: tragic, but a fact of life.
Takahata also adds to the realism by reproducing tiny human movements. This is especially evident in the younger sister, Setsuko, who exhibits all the fidgets and ticks of a child just beginning to figure out out her motor skills. It’s all the more impressive considering each of these tiny movements is hours or days of extra work for an animator.
However, much like Federico Fellini, Takahata owes much to neorealism, but he’s not beholden to it. Like Fellini, Takahata isn’t afraid to visually represent the thoughts of his characters. In a scene where the two characters daydream about their father, who’s in the navy, his ship comes alive in front of their eyes. Later in the film, the older brother goes into a reverie about his sister, imagining her before him. And much like the classic Sunset Boulevard, the film is narrated by a main character who’s distinctly posthumous.
Brutally emotional war films like this one walk a fine line. I want to be touched by a film, but I recoil when I feel the film is cheating, manipulating me emotionally with a sweeping score and overly melodramatic performances (Schindler’s List, I’m looking at you).
Grave of the Fireflies, I think, earns its tears. By showing the characters’ ultimate fate from the get-go, Takahata refuses to bait us with false hope. By employing neorealism, he gives us a picture, sans commentary, of life during wartime. And with that hint of melodrama, he lets us into the minds of his characters just enough to build real empathy.
This film was quickly relicensed by ADV when CPM went out of business, which is good news, because it’s a film everyone oughta see, even if it can be tough to sit through. Hey, you can always watch Totoro afterward.