The fallout of war is never easy to watch. With life lost, society altered and millions affected, the subject matter requires a subtle approach – controlled, emotive and for the desired effect. Grave of the Fireflies manages this and more, resulting in one of the most moving, daring and well conceived war films ever put to film. With beautiful art direction and a small yet well developed cast of characters, Isao Takahata’s 1988 animated production is one for the ages.
Told from the perspective of two Japanese children in the final years of the Second World War, Grave of the Fireflies takes a point of exploring an aspect often overlooked in favour of bloody battles, and politics, choosing the perspective of normal civilians and war’s impact upon them. When Seita and Setsuko’s mother dies due to harsh burns received by an airstrike, the children are forced to live with their atrocious aunt. At first, this new locale gives the children a chance to explore farmyards and play games. However, as the war continue, and Japan’s stance in the conflict diminishes, tensions are strained, with Seita receiving abuse due to his lack of contribution to the war effort.
Taking it upon themselves to live their life in a happier environment, they wait for the return of their navy officer father, the children come out and live in an abandoned bomb shelter. Rations continually available, free from adult oppression, Seita and Setsuko explore the neighbouring community (taking in a great deal of how war has affected the landscape). When money dries up and food runs scarce, the pair are forced to find other means to survive – some badly received by others in their community.
Based on a true life memoir, Grave of the Fireflies is emotionally charged in a manner which brings feeling throughout its impactive narrative. From the happiness of its opening, through the sorrow it delivers in its conclusion, the film is masterfully positioned to always deliver desired feeling. In creating this emotive reception, Takahata and his animators deliver a truth about normal people in times of hardship and loss. Described as an ‘anti-war’ film in the past, Takahata has discredited these claims in favour of a simple character study within a war setting.
Grave of the Fireflies feels very much more than a simple animated production. Rarely in film do two characters feel as real as the two children driving the film. With this harsh realness delivered so well, Grave of the Fireflies manages to create a sense of need in every single frame of its effective production.
Less assured animation houses might have simplified the narrative and glossed over the effect derived through its powerful narrative and showcased a more fairytale imagining of the Second World War. However, Studio Ghibli is built on delivering masterpieces, with Grave of the Fireflies one of the most truly emotional films to ever released within this genre. With an artistic aesthetic that expertly conveys its characters’ plight, Takahata directed a film that never shies away from the difficult aspects of war and those who inhabit them.