Friday Afternoon Movie: Grave Of The Fireflies

Hey you, over there. Yeah you, with the Garfield plushy and the pictures of your cat, Garfield, dotting your cubicle walls. That’s right, you. You know what your problem is? You’re too damn cheerful. You say you hate Mondays in a way that tells me you really don’t and you’re always the first one to suggest ideas for weekend long team building exercises. You should stop that. What you need is a good, harsh dose of reality, delivered with an animated veneer. Here, sit yourself down and let me show you something.

Today, the Friday Afternoon Movie presents Grave of the Fireflies directed by Isao Takahata and adapted from the book of the same name by Akiyuki Nosaka. Released in 1988 by Shinchosha, who wisely hired the renowned Studio Ghibli to animate it, Grave of the Fireflies tells the story of Seita and his sister Setsuko. Orphaned near the end of World War II — losing their mother in the firebombing of Kobe and their father in the line of duty in the Japanese Imperial Navy — we follow the two through a desolate and famine ravished Japan as they attempt to survive, enduring the cruel indifference of both their relatives and fellow countrymen.

The antithesis of what many people expect from an animated feature it must have been even more puzzling upon its release in Japan, paired as a double feature with Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro. Grave of the Fireflies is a look at the aftermath of an event that Japan continues to come to grips with and it is nearly unflinching in its gaze refusing to gloss over the cruelty and desperation it falls upon without ever becoming gratuitous. Roger Ebert, in his review, said that he felt the choice to animate the story was the correct one as “live action would have been burdened by the weight of special effects, violence and action” and I could not agree more (thought it should be noted that there have been two live action versions released in Japan since, in 2005 and 2008). The impressionistic nature of animation only helps to let this tragic tale emerge on its own terms. Scenes like Setsuko, dying of starvation and hallucinating, offering her brother a “dinner” she cooked for him, in reality clumps of mud and stones, are some of the most heart-wrenching things I have seen a movie.

It’s proof of the power of animation that something like Grave of the Fireflies work’s so well; and a shame then that, in this country at least, the majority of animated feature films decline to deal with this kind of subject matter, opting instead to tackle stories deemed too strange (or costly) for traditional live action films or the saccharine, princess fantasies of Walt Disney. In fact, it seems disingenuous to limit that statement to the U.S. There are few animated features that dare to approach this kind of subject matter and perhaps none that have plumbed the same emotional depth, period. It’s a testament to Takahata and Studio Ghibli’s skill and courage — and the power of Nosaka’s story — that even movies from some of my favorite directors, writers, and producers don’t affect me the way Grave of the Fireflies does. If you haven’t seen it you owe it to yourself to experience this profound study of war and its effects on the human condition.

14 Responses to “Friday Afternoon Movie: Grave Of The Fireflies”

  1. Lindsey "Little Moo" Says:

    That film is amazing,one of my favorites.
    Thanks for getting the word out about it through your blog.

  2. Elana Says:

    This is the most emotionally upsetting movie I’ve ever seen. I’ve only had the courage to watch it once, even though I own it.

    Just one clarification: it was not a puzzling release. It was released as an educational film for elementary school students to teach the horrors of war. It was actually considered the more marketable of the two, when paired with Totoro; it was a ‘sure thing’ because it would be picked up by schools, whereas there was concern that Totoro would not be popular due to its somewhat traditional themes, slow pace, not much plot, and lack of action scenes.

    (I think I picked up that fact when I visited the Ghibli museum in Mitaka, although I’m not 100% sure; I’ve collected a lot of books on the studio over the years)

    Anyway, this is one of those great films to watch once and be scarred forever by.

  3. The F'n Jem'Hadar Says:

    I remember watching this on the bus during a field trip for my japanese high school class. Those of us who were paying attention were crying. This movie is one of the best I’ve ever watched, and feel needs more attention brought to it. Thank you FAM. Great choice.

  4. Beebs Says:

    What a great choice. Too few people state-side have seen this movie, and that’s a real shame.

    Breaks my heart every time I watch it.

  5. Rick Says:

    My wife brought this home from the library a few weeks ago (the movie, not the book) and said she’d heard great reviews of it. I don’t remember if she watched it all the way through, but I was extremely depressed by what little I saw.

    That’s not to say it wasn’t *good*. It was just… very depressing.

  6. Mer Says:

    Oof. Excellent/harrowing choice, Ross. This is the only Studio Ghibli film I’ve only ever watched once. I just can’t bear to. Amazing film.

  7. Stagger Leah Says:

    Once again the FAM has brightened my day…although in this case that probably seems like the wrong choice of words.

    If anyone else is interested in animated movies with rough themes like this one, another awesome movie (and also a graphic novel) is “When the Wind Blows”, an English movie I think. I’m only watching this one now, but so far it’s been number one in my “Saddest movies ever” spot.

    Thank you Ross!

  8. The Right Rabbit Says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for posting this. This film has made a great impact on my childhood more than anything else, even though I’ve only watched it once. If you’ve ever heard of the dispute between the Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese about the war crimes the Japanese did during world war two, then you would have known that a lot of kids were brought up with (at least some degree of) hatred towards each other. This film made me realise that it doesn’t matter what race we are for war to be charring for us, and it’s been held really, really dear to my heart ever since.

    Thank you.

  9. Erin Says:

    Thanks for posting this. As an incredibly depressed teenager I watched this movie many times, but really haven’t brought it out in my happier days. I’ll have to watch my copy again soon.

    Such a moving film though. It’s quite good at creating this pervasive atmosphere that just makes you feel sick to your stomach. That sounds bad I guess, but I think that was partly the intention, so the film succeeds beautifully.

  10. Miss E Says:

    I would’ve never expected to see this movie posted here but, then again you folks have great taste. This movie is probably one of my favorites but also one of the saddest I have ever seen. It is the only movie that I can think of that has ever made me bawl and makes me bawl every time I watch it. The first time was probably the worst though as I was watching it with my youngest sister and towards the end I found myself imagining being in the position (especially the ending) and it was simply too much. We fight and bicker and snarl at each other constantly but, if I would rather be shot, poisoned, hung and incinerated alive than to ever have to watch her die and not be able to do anything about it.

    Gah…now I’m crying again. I’m going to go hold her again. She’s 16 so you know how that is, but whatever…

  11. ErinSamedi Says:

    I think I may be the only person on the planet who just doesn’t like this movie. I don’t find it heart-wrenching, it doesn’t resonate with me on the emotional level it works on everyone else. (I understand this might mean I’m a replicant) but every time I see it, I can’t help think… the aunt WAS right, he SHOULDN’T have been puttering around the house, he SHOULD have been going to school or working towards a reconstruction effort. Also, living with a cold, uncaring realitive is better than starvation and it wasn’t the coldness and indifference of his countrymen that killed him and his sister, it was his pride.

  12. eman Says:

    Hello Erin. If you feel this way pleaaase watch the movie or find the books of Barefoot Gen

    That’s a truly sad book where the kid does keep trying to save his family and himself. You are so right about the brat in this movie. If you read Barefoot Gen before watching Graveyard there’s no way you can feel sorry for this punkass kid who gets his sister killed.

  13. Ross Rosenberg Says:

    ErinSamedi – The aunt’s indifference has nothing to do with Seita being lazy it has everything to do with the fact that once she can no longer get any food out of them (she procures rice by convincing him to sell his mother’s kimonos and he retrieves some leftover supplies he had buried) she wants them to leave. So her entire motivation is selfishness; once she has gotten everything she can get from him she wants him to leave.

  14. Thomas Says:

    ErinSamedi and eman–

    I think you might consider that Seita is at the age when he is between being a man and a boy. In that context, his reactions are not those of a “punkass kid.” He has seen his mother die and learns his father is also dead. He goes to rely on relatives who treat him callously despite he and his sister being recently orphaned and feed him and his sister a smaller ration even though he brings them something of a financial windfall. The aunt, for example, is shown as being overweight and taking food for herself as she prepares it. His reaction as a boy is, understandably, indignant and prideful. His reaction as a man is thinking that he is self-sufficient and independent enough to care for his sister. We are asked as an audience to think about how a war took fairly average characters with otherwise normal reactions, and certainly with no more flaws than any of us at that age, and created from it a very tragic outcome.

    Also, keep in mind that this work is semi-autobiographical. “Seita” wrote this as an adult, implying that he wishes he had died instead of being alive after his sister’s death.

    I know we all like to imagine that we’d be perfectly logical and virtuous in such circumstances, but sometimes being human (at any age) means being illogical and less than ideal. Hopefully this helps you appreciate the movie more.