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Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

September 8, 2010

9/10 Innocents Lost

The one movie that will change everything you’ve ever thought about anime.

Grave of the Fireflies is about a teenage boy and his little sister who find themselves orphaned and living on the streets after their Japanese town is firebombed towards the end of World War II. With hardly anything but the clothes on their back to account for and only a distant relative to turn to, they set out across their war-torn and destitute country in the hope of finding a way to survive from one day to the next.

So writing about anime movies is about as tricky as finding time to watch anime movies without my good buddy Fred rolling his eyes at me while wondering why he keeps spending so much time with this kid who has clearly forgotten that he longer lives in his mother’s basement. And I don’t blame him, because as good as some anime is and deserves to be taken seriously, it’s pretty ridiculous how much of what gets put out contains tentacles, pocket monsters, card battles or all of the above. The preconceived notions are justified and they can be pretty-spot on when they’re not generalized, but if you’re at all interested in being convinced otherwise, this is where you start, this is the turning point.

What sets Grave of the Fireflies apart from arguably every other anime movie out there is that it’s an entirely human experience. No ninjas, no demons, no androids, and strangely enough, it’s not even much of a war film since it’s entirely focused on the aftermath rather than the battles and bombings that defined the period. But that’s the point: this is about the casualties of war, the ones who never had anything to do with it yet nonetheless met the same end as those on the frontlines. It’s not the story that typically gets told and since it lacks so much of what we’ve all come to expect from anime, it stands out that much more as a result.

In a nutshell, it’s just about a boy named Seita and a girl named Setsuko struggling to fend for themselves and trying to find some semblance of happiness and hope in a world overrun with plight. There’s really not a whole lot else to it than that, and by the time it wraps up, you won’t likely forget them.

The great thing about these two characters is that they come across as ordinary, honest and surprisingly real, about as real as any animated individual can feel. From the opening scene we’re tipped off that neither of them end up surviving their ordeal, at which point they’re nothing more than a tragic statistic, but the fact that you’ll probably be bawling your eyes out by the time this unfortunate fact comes full circle says a great deal about the kind of weight this story carries. I’m not so sure that anything would be taken away from the experience had it been filmed with real-life actors, but I’ve seen first-hand that this movie can make a believer out of anyone and shake ’em to the core. One of those movies that reminds you how, victory or defeat, wars are such lose-lose situations on every side.

From a visual standpoint, the animation is gorgeous in terms of the landscapes, but as a whole it’s by no means jaw-dropping, and that’s fine. If this were a Miyazaki picture, then that’d a be a whole ‘nother story, but for director Isao Takahata, simplicity is his strong suit and it’s amazing how he manages to make some of the most humdrum images stick out like a sore thumb just by the way they makes his characters come to life. Beautiful score, too.

Man, I wish I knew what else to say about this one, because part of me feels like I should be able to crank out a dissertation on such an astoundingly affecting movie as this, but I’m finding it pretty hard to convey why this may very well be the greatest anime movie ever made. I can imagine it’d be a bit odd as an animator to have a blank canvas in front of you and find yourself creating a world that actually exists rather than one that you can invent and manipulate at your disposal, but it’s a damn shame that more anime doesn’t strive to connect with its audience and take a step forward by taking a step back as this does. I don’t know if I’m getting this across sufficiently or if I’ve managed to sway anyone towards giving this a shot, but trust me, it’s so worth and you will be so surprised by what you find.

Grave of the Fireflies is not only one of the most resoundlingly powerful anti-war movies you’re likely to ever see, but that it comes in the form of a medium that has unfortunately become synonymous with big-eyed, big-breasted, wildly misproportioned women and more TV shows about giant robots than you can wrap your head around is the real accomplishment. The kids can keep all that Yu-Gi-Oh! crap for all I care; mom, dad and everyone else with an open mind and an eye for quality, this one’s for you.

Get ready to cry.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. September 8, 2010 12:08 am

    One of my very favorite anime of all time and such an incredibly powerful and tragic anti-war movie that will make even the most stone-hearted weep. It’s also an underrated look into the Japanese way of life during World War II. Superb review Aiden.

    • September 8, 2010 8:16 am

      Thanks, man. Good point about the insight into post-WWII life in Japan, dead on about that one. What’s your favorite anime movie though?

      • September 8, 2010 9:50 am

        My favorite is Spirited Away but this come a very close second.

      • September 8, 2010 9:55 am

        Good call. Used to own that one, been dying to watch it again for a while now.

  2. September 8, 2010 12:12 am

    It’s a great review Aiden. I love this animation. I was planning to write my review on this movie last month as it is related to Indonesian Independence Day…but I got so busy and didn’t have time to write it.

    This anime is very sad, I’ve watched like 3 times (maybe more) and it always makes me cry.

    • September 8, 2010 8:17 am

      Thanks, Novroz. Would love to read your take on it, and I’m right there with ya’, probably seen it three times as well and they were all tear-jerkers.

      • September 8, 2010 11:41 am

        Unfortunately, Hotaru no Hoka will have to wait for a while, I’m planning to watch and review the girl that jump through time. I have plenty of time to watch movies this month. Have you watched that anime?

      • September 8, 2010 11:47 am

        Seen Spirited Away a couple times – which is great – but never even heard of The Girl that Jumped Through Time. By anyone I’d know? Let me know how it is.

      • September 8, 2010 12:02 pm

        Just like Castor, Spirited Away is my all time favorite.

        The girl is not from Ghibli, it defeats one of Ghibli’s animation in Japanese animation award.

        But someone told me that, the ghibli animation that was defeated was the worst animation ever created by ghibli.

  3. September 8, 2010 12:40 pm

    I wrote about this one recently and didn’t care for it. The opening ruined a lot of the tension for me and distanced me from the characters to begin with. I also never found anything compelling about the two children so I never had that emotional connection that so many talk about having with this film. It was still harrowing and visually compelling but by the end I just didn’t care for it. I prefer My Neighbor Totoro, which deals with the same idea of grappling with mortality as a child, but with a lot more personality, zest and emotional investment (at least for me).

    • September 8, 2010 12:55 pm

      Interesting take. Been hearing about Totoro my whole life but it’s probably time I finally got around to actually watching it. Thanks for the heads up and looking forward to it.

  4. moriarty permalink
    September 9, 2010 11:16 am

    Wow, I cried like a baby on this one…

    Remember this movie as a really sad story about War, surviving, and love.

    I rate this movie, and “When the wind blows”, as the most realistic movies about War in animation.

    **Also love “My neighbor Totoro” or “Nausicaa”… well in fact any movie from the Ghibli Studio o Miyazaki.- 😉

    • September 9, 2010 11:45 am

      Never seen When the Wind Blows…or Totoro…or Nausicaa. What the hell do I do with my time? Will get back to you on all of these asap.

      • moriarty permalink
        September 10, 2010 9:00 am

        Hahaha, it’s not like is homework, mate! But I guess you’ll like them when you do watch them.

        I guess you need time and be old enough (like me) to had watch as many movies, as I did. I have a little advantage, plus love watching movies anytime I can…. XD

        Good review, by the way.

      • September 10, 2010 10:01 am

        thanks, man. i’m in the same boat in terms of watching as many movies as possible in my free time, just so overwhelming whenever I look at the hundreds in my netflix queue. well, at least i got some time on my hands.

  5. September 11, 2010 10:43 am

    Pinnacle of animated storytelling. Fine review good sir!

    • September 13, 2010 11:16 am

      Thanks! Glad you agree, anything less from JapanCinema would have induced tears.


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