Release date: August 23, 2004 (United Kingdom)
Director: Isao Takahata
Running time: 1h 30m
Production company: Studio Ghibli
Story by: Akiyuki Nosak
Starring: Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi, Akemi Yamaguchi, Yoshiko Shinohara.
Grave of the fireflies, brought to you by Isao Takahata (The Tale of Princess Kaguya, Only Yesterday) and Studio Ghibli (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away) is the emotional semi-autobiographical story of two Japanese siblings and their fight for survival during the last few months of World War II.
The movie opens, a figure standing centrally, cast with a ruby hue, looks directly into the camera. A whispery voice utters the words “September 21st 1945. That was the day I died.” The character’s gaze drifts towards a perishing boy, Seita, sat against the concrete pillar of a subway station. The camera flicks up high, looking down on the near lifeless boy and life slowly starts to form around him, the sound of train tracks, the bustling’s of other humans, and then, we hear the comments coming from those around him “disgusting”, “so filthy”, and in an almost ironic, self-aware tone, “Don’t want Americans to see this” A comment lacking in so little humanity and so revealing into public priorities of post war Japan that you just don’t know whether to laugh or cry. As we take in the consequences of these comments we are taken to a close up of the perishing boy’s face, the sound becomes muffled and then, not too dissimilar from a train whistle, we hear the screeching sound of a little girl crying out for her mother. Death is upon us. As the security guard throws Seita’s last remaining possession, a pear drop tin once used to contain the few remaining nuggets of joy, out into the open, a beautiful melody, so very typical of Japanese games and cartons, begins to grace our ears. The lid falls off and emerging from the wreckage, a group of beautiful fireflies. As the fireflies glisten and shimmer, rising into the sky, the figure of a little girl, Setsuko, doused in red light rises from the long grass and reunites with her dead brother. As the credits role the two figures sit down on a train, looking out of the window, taking in the sight of a burning Japan. We are then taken back to the day Seita and Setsuko’s mother is brutally taken from them during a napalm strike and the film plays out from there.
As a cartoon, one would expect a movie geared towards the younger generation, softer round the edges and less emotionally charged, but this animation breaks all expectations. Despite being so grief stricken this movie has moments of pure beauty and joy. In parts this movie acts as a reminder that in the darkest moments there are still glimmers of light and joy to be witnessed. The joy of nature, the joy of company, the joy of slowly suckling on the last pear drop. It is easy for the viewer to be swept away and appreciate the naivety of Setsuko's joy however, these moments of blissful ignorance only make the conclusion even more heart breaking. Watching the process of joy and youthful exuberance slowly drain and transform into lifeless despair, through the eyes of a helpless older brother, will cause even the coldest of hearts to shed many a tear.
Grave of the fireflies is one of the most powerful and beautifully harrowing movies I have ever had the pleasure to watch and the fact this was based on a true story not only intensifies the emotional torment but also serves as a reminder of the sanctity of human life. I urge you all to go out and watch this incredible movie, but please ensure it is in the original Japanese. The English(read: American) dubbing almost feels like someone has decide to rip out the heart of this beautiful story of sibling love and perseverance only to crush it with the muddy heel of a soiled boot.