War films are powerful by design. They are created to draw an emotional response from their viewers. The brutal beginning and end of Saving Private Ryan as well as the childish innocence of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas are examples of devastating moments within these powerful films. But one war film stands head and shoulders over all others by virtue of its hopeless realism and despairing setting.
Grave of the Fireflies is set at the end of World War 2 in the Japanese city of Kobe. It focusses on Seita, a fifteen-year-old boy, and his four-year-old sister Setsuko in their efforts to survive as recently orphaned children in the final months of the war. Starving and sick the two children struggle to eke out an existence in a city devastated by war and populated by people only looking out for themselves. It stands as one of Studio Ghibli’s bravest films as well as one of its best.
Studio Ghibli is no stranger to war. A great deal of the studio’s films from Howl’s Moving Castle to Porco Rosso right up to The Wind Rises have depicted war in one way or another but none of them did it as graphically as Grave of the Fireflies did. Released in 1988 alongside My Neighbour Totoro director Isao Takahata’s film stood in stark contrast to its far more cheerful sister film. The two were released side-by-side, often as a double bill, meaning audiences would either leave the cinema incredibly happy or depressed; depending on the order of the films. A great deal of Studio Ghibli director Hayao Miyazaki’s films have featured war and compared to Takahata, his Ghibli co-founder, Miyazaki’s films have been far more successful. With that said Takahata’s unique approach to anime has ensured his films have the same cultural legacy as Miyazaki’s, their impact registering long after the credits roll.
As audiences, we are used to seeing children suffer and struggle through trials and tribulations thanks to Disney but with Grave of the Fireflies Studio Ghibli took it one step further. If you think the ending to My Girl was devastating you ain’t seen nothing yet. Takahata, in his directing debut for Ghibli, went hell for leather in depicting the suffering of individuals within a doomed nation. Seita and Setsuko are isolated and shunned by society, as so many Japanese orphans were, after the death of their mother in an air raid. They fall through the cracks as so many do during wartime either pitied from afar or completely ignored by society at large. The children are lonely figures and Grave of the Fireflies’ animation depicts this in an overtly painful way.
Isao Takahata has never drawn professionally in his life. He writes and directs but he does not animate and at eighty-one this is unlikely to change for him. His films often take twice as long to make as Hayao Miyazaki’s do. While at Ghibli Takahata has never finished a film on time or on budget. His vision demands perfection and even if it takes five years, in the case of The Tale of Princess Kaguya, he will see it through.
The war is at once immediate and far away for Seita and Setsuko. Starvation, poverty, and illness are all around but conflict only occurs when American forces bomb Kobe. The animation is at once horrifying and sublime. Sparks flicker and dance as a city burns just as the titular fireflies dance and swirl in the cave the children come to call home. An idyllic seaside scene is rendered tragic by the marks of malnutrition revealed on Setsuko’s four-year-old body. The trademark facial animations of Studio Ghibli are a constant presence revealing everything from boundless joy to crushing sadness. But Grave of the Fireflies can only end one way. There is no rich saviour. There is no safe haven. There is only war and starvation and death.
Setsuko dies of malnutrition just as Seita returns with life-saving food for the both of them. He buries her alongside the fireflies she so cherished. Eventually, weeks later, Seita himself dies of starvation alone in a train station. According to Takahata Grave of the Fireflies is not an anti-war film instead it is a film about “Two children living a failed life due to isolation from society”. This is not intended as a criticism of the children but instead as a criticism of a society that ignored its most vulnerable members through outdated notions of pride and honour.
Roger Ebert called Grave of the Fireflies the best and most powerful war film ever made and he is yet to be corrected. It is a harsh critique of a society gone craven through pride and arrogance. But it also a sympathetic look at how vulnerable children are. Anime often shows children as world changing heroes not so here. Instead Isao Takahata depicts Seita and Setsuko as victims. It is a film that echoes with every war fought around the world through the years. It makes us aware who the real victims are and though it may be animation the weight of reality has never felt heavier. Andrew Carroll