Essential: GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES (1988)

TB: When Jlewis and I talked about this month’s theme on foreign animation, we were just going to do four Saturdays and take the fifth week off. But then I thought, why not do another one. Especially if there’s another great film we can bring to everyone’s attention. A day or so later Jlewis suggested GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES. I was glad because I thought it would be good to do a more recent example of something in this genre. At the time I didn’t know much about this particular title. But as I’ve since discovered, it’s a truly phenomenal accomplishment. I’m very pleased Jlewis selected it as an essential.

One thing I’d like to point out– in his review Jlewis talks about whether the story needed to be done in animation. He cites the fact there are no cuddly animals, which is kind of interesting. I think it was done as animation instead of live action entertainment, because the topic is somewhat solemn. Presenting it in animation gives it a much more childlike and possibly innocent quality. I think this decision by the filmmakers helps ensure it’s more palatable for the audience, without sugar-coating or simplifying things too much.

I would also like to state that while it’s a Japanese motion picture specific to Japanese culture, it has relevance for American audiences for obvious reasons.

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JL: GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES (火垂るの墓 / HOTARU NO HAKA), directed and scripted by Isao Takahata and adapted from Akiyuki Nosaka semi-autobiographical short story of 1967, pretty much spoils the outcome for viewers even before the opening credits roll on screen. A teenage boy named Seita tells us in voice-over: “September 21, 1945…that was the night I died.”

We see him dressed in uniform, but in spirit form, looking over a famished homeless soul in a Kobe train station, taking his final breath. Others comment “these bums are a disgrace” and the janitors come by to collect his corpse as “another one”…to remove.

His belongings, limited that they are, are rummaged through and one particular item, a candy tin, is tossed outside. A bit of anime magic happens as Seita’s spirit is reunited with another, a little girl, amid a group of fireflies.

This is the story of a person who was more than just “another one.”

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We backtrack many months to when he and four year old sister Setsuko witness their home getting bombed by American planes. Their mother is rushed to the hospital despite taking a shelter and her situation is grim. An aunt aids them to some degree, eventually accepting them into her home. However her maternal instinct for them does not last long and she tells Seita that he is a burden to her, especially since he no longer attends school (that being burned down as well). Selling off their mother’s kimonos helps with some food costs, but the teenager soon realizes he must move out.

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This is not an entirely grim story. We see the children have fun at the beach. They make a home for themselves in an abandoned farm hut and capture fireflies, many of which die and Setsuko buries them in child like fashion.

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At one point, a rotting corpse is fleetingly seen by the little girl, it being buried under a beach blanket. Her very protective brother tells her to not look at it. Death is something he avoids discussing with her, delaying the news of their mother’s death (which she finds out from her aunt separately anyway) and he never tells her that their father, a soldier, is missing in action in a fleet that sank. This is a very emotional film with characters full of depth that are easy to relate to. Sadly, little by little, the world around them starts to fall apart. Yet the brother does everything possible to make the sibling he cares so much about happy despite it all.

I won’t spoil the story any further but, yes, this is a great film to watch if you are not fond of traditional happy ever after endings in many animated cartoon features.

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I should point out that the Japanese have a more favorable view of death and life after it, in whatever form accepted, than most Americans. In a curious way, I do find the ending happy to some degree, at least in a spiritual way.

Many western critics, including the late Roger Ebert who adored this movie, consider this a great anti-war film showing how children often become the neglected casualties that never get reported. Yet the war itself, dramatic in bombing scenes here and there, is nothing more than a temporary backdrop. Much of the film involves no mention of any wars but focuses on two children trying to make a life for themselves when everybody, including one surviving relative, tend to act cool and distant with them.

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Adults in power, doctor included, give little guidance. A poor farmer is kind to them in a few small ways but he is no help overall. I find it more of an anti-adult film more than an anti-war film since war is just another aspect of adulthood that causes havoc on children’s lives.

Perhaps because this wasn’t a “fun” film, Studio Ghibli released it on April 16, 1988 as part of a double-bill with another of their recently completed features simultaneously. MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO was a much more feel-good, kid friendly fantasy. It also had the advantage of a merchandising character that helped bring in revenue not always accumulated at the box-office.

Unfortunately both films suffered some competition with Katsuhiro Otomo’s enormous blockbuster AKIRA, which opened three months later and pretty much dominated the international market. While it made U.S. screens and VHS within a year (and I saw AKIRA on video around 1990 although I wasn’t very fond of it with its complicated futuristic crime story), GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES only got limited attention in the American market and belatedly made the video cut in 1993.

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Nonetheless Studio Ghibli of Koganei, Tokyo was and still is a company that has gained plenty of prestige over the years. It had only been founded in 1985 and enjoyed a big hit with its first feature, Hayao Miyazaki’s CASTLE IN THE SKY released the following year. So successful was Studio Ghibli’s product internationally that even Disney got nervous, snapping up the distribution rights to much of its product in the U.S. and elsewhere by 1995.

Their reputation this side of the Pacific Ocean grew with the Oscar winning SPIRITED AWAY. Unfortunately, the Academy members then got neurotic about “foreign” animated features invading their turf and only the British WALLACE & GROMIT: THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT nabbed the coveted statue in all of the years since. However four more Studio Ghibli productions have received nominations for Best Animated Feature.

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What many of the prestigious Japanese anime features share in common is their extreme attention to detail that is mind boggling to the Americans viewing them. Nothing is overlooked here. The fireflies are photographic realistic despite all being drawn, painted and set-up cel-wise and otherwise mostly by hand. Although computers were starting to aid the animation process by the eighties, many aspects of this feature were still done the traditional way of decades previous and the results are absolutely breath-taking.

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The humans don’t look rotoscoped, but are very lifelike in expressions. There are many little things that impress: the careful details of the rice and other food items on display, the vintage newspapers that Setsuko doodles and cut from are a close match to those of wartime Japan, the countryside settings that resemble England as much as Japan in its impressionistic way. One major influence on the overall look of the film was Michiyo Yasuda, whose design ideas went against what was considered the norm in Japanese anime of the period by favoring brown over black ink lines around the characters, softening it more like the Disney films of the past. Particularly impressive is all of the airbrushed background work.

I guess one criticism that could be made is this: why bother making a cartoon of a story that can easily be shot as live-action?  After all, there are no make believe characters or funny animals involved. Sure enough, there was a live-action version of this made for Japanese TV in 2005. The original author Akiyuki Nosaka saw the storyboards in preparation for this film and was impressed enough (per Wikipedia’s article on the topic) to state that animation was the only method of storytelling that could adequately depict the environment he wrote about effectively.

The IMDb lists 132 names in the animation department alone. While only few of these names may be familiar to even the most passionate of anime enthusiasts, this was clearly a major team effort and a labor of love. You sense that everybody working on this considered this a special film with a special message that would last as entertainment for quite some time in the future.

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