Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Directed by Isao Takahata
The third entry into my top 100 is an atypical animated film from Japan. Gone from this animated film is all the usual genre fare; quirky animals, hyperactive sidekicks, pop culture references, and broad slapstick humor. Graves of the Fireflies eschews those typical clichés and instead embraces a very realistic and dramatic stance, and its not surprising considering the sobering subject matter it covers.
Grave of Fireflies tells the story of two children, a brother (Seita) and a sister (Setsuko), trying to survive after their family is killed in an Allied bombing raid during the dwindling days of World War II. Seita and Setsuko struggle to find food (along with the rest of the Japanese) due to severe rationing by the government. It’s a sad tale of struggle and hardship, as these children are forced into stealing and ultimately living in caves.
Some may find the film a little too depressing too watch (starving children sounds like a good night at the movies doesn’t it?), but they are missing out on the small moments of humanity that make this film a joy. Some may love it just because it’s depressing, but they will miss out on how the film demands for the audience to empathize with the plight of these children, and those caught up in the unintended consequences of war. Some may love it because they mistake this film for an anti-war film, but that would misunderstand the intent of the film. (It remains silent on whether it feels war can be justified).
I love it because the film is a passionate plea for people to remember the price that war asks of its people. By using the children as the narrative point of view, the film is able to give us a simple and unbiased experience of war. The struggles for the glory of Japan are replaced by the simple struggles to fill the day, and fill the stomach. There are no long monologues extolling the evils of war, instead we are shown the human toil onscreen. While I believe that war can be justified and righteous, I still thank God for films like Grave of the Fireflies that will always stand as a reminder to those who engage in war the price they ask of their people.
I remember on a trip to Paris with my family, we visited the Palace of Versailles. The beauty and opulence of the palace stands in stark contrast to anything built by the government of the United States (the White House is extremely underwhelming), and for a second I regretted that America wasn’t dotted with palaces and castles the likes of Versailles. Then I remembered how these kinds of palaces were built, on the backs of starving citizens for centuries, and I was immediately thankful that our government restrained from it.
There is a scene at the end of the film where a deceased Seita and Setsuko stand on a hillside over looking modern day Tokyo. It’s a powerful image and a powerful reminder to us of the sacrifices made by those who have gone before us, in order that we may live the way we do today. Grave of the Fireflies is a haunting film, and one that will always remind of suffering that even the most innocent must endure during war. Even when the cause is just, even when its right to act, there will be always be unintended consequences. This films helps me to not forget and that is why I can’t live without it.
Other Essentials: Setsuko pretending that a ball of dirt is really a riceball. Fireflies lighting up the cave. The haunting, but suitable score.