Having watched Grave of the Fireflies for the third time yesterday, I found myself deep in thought on my way to work early this morning, which in itself is highly unusual and slightly confusing. My thoughts kept circling back to the story of Saita and Setsuko, two siblings struggling to survive the horrors that dominated the life in the Japanese Empire towards the end of the Second World War. The question I kept asking myself was how this movie manages to evoke such a powerful emotional response from me, even when I know every twist and turn of the story and some of the most horrid and some of the most beautiful images of the film are burnt deep into my memory by now.
I think part of the answer lies in the animation itself. Breathtakingly beautiful in the one moment, when the hand drawn imagery of the lush and green Japanese countryside appear as pieces of art I want to cover my walls with, the movie never holds back on presenting the horrors of war in equally unapologetic detail. When director Isao Takahata shows the mother of the two siblings in the hospital, suffering from severe burns after a fire raid on their hometown, wrapped in blood-soaked bandages with maggots crawling over her as her son has to idly stand by, he presents images an audience of a live action movie might not even be able to process or appreciate.
It is the animation– and for Western audiences maybe more specifically the Japanese style of animation – that allows this balance between pristine beauty and shocking gruesomeness to work. Like a good book, the animation creates a distance between the story and the audience that leaves room for imagination and interpretation in a way a more “realistic” movie could not. It makes some of the more gruesome moments in the young lives of Saita and Setsuko bearable – moments that might appear unnecessarily cruel or downright sadistic in a live action movie or the hands of a lesser storyteller.
The second part of the equation is the point of view from which the story is told. The movie smartly never shifts away from the perspective of two children who are miraculously able to find and appreciate true beauty and happiness in a way only children could in such desperate times. This is emphasized by the utter inability of the “grown-ups” in this story to cope with the world changing and dying around them, like the siblings’ aunt who seems to desperately hold on to traditional values of Imperial Japan to the point of losing all semblance of humanity.
It is their “childish” inclination that allows Saita and Setsuko not to give up, to find solace in each other, or in an afternoon of fooling around on the beach, or the simple pleasure of a sweet fruit drop. There are small moments of unbelievably pure love and kindness in this movie. When Saita tries to divert his little sister’s attention away from the horrors of war and the unrelenting personal grief they are experiencing by doing gymnastics on a playground that miraculously survived the bombing of their hometown, one cannot help but be completely awed and engrossed by his acts of kindness.
We might be inclined to think that an adult would “know better” – would know to fully understand the severity of a life and death situation – but it is the great achievement of Grave of the Fireflies that this very conviction is put into question. There are several truly profound moments in this movie, where a grown man can ask himself whether the mind of a child might be better suited to suffer through extreme pain and trauma, maybe better suited to make sense of the world at all.
The third component to the emotional impact of the film is the way director Isao Takahata smartly chooses to present moments of horror and grief in a decidedly unemotional way. Where lesser directors would try to emphasize the dramatic tension by queuing the somber music and showing close-up reactions of the characters weeping to tell the audience exactly how awful they are supposed to feel in a given moment, Takahata knows to step back and let the well-established emotional connection between audience and the characters do its work. It is exactly in this unsentimentalized approach to storytelling and the carefully constructed contrast between Saita and Setsuko’s innocence and the extreme suffering they have to experience, that the movie can draw its emotional power.
How do you recommend a movie that you know will completely devastate somebody? Maybe by telling you that watching Grave of the Fireflies is a truly unique experience so full of raw emotion that is worth “suffering” through, because it will stay with you for the rest of your life. Maybe I have a better suggestion.
1988 was a defining year for animation, which happened to produce two of my all-time favorite movies. These two movies happened made by the same production company, by two Japanese directors who had known each other for along time and decided it was time to provide themselves with the creative freedom they had been missing. Having seen Hayao Miyazaki‘s My Neighbor Totoro and Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies separately several times before realizing how intimately connected they were, it came to a great surprise when I learned that the two movies had been released on the same day, released in a double bill, where one movie was intended to be shown right after the other. Never has a double bill made this much sense.
They are two of the greatest animated movies of all time. The first one will tear your heart out and stomp around on it for a solid hour and a half. The second – which manages to tell a captivating story almost entirely without conflict – will take you by the hand, allow you to deeply push yourself into the soft fur of the gentle giant Totoro and let the healing start. Both movies are a testament to the unique sensibilities of two of the greatest storytellers of our time that somehow tumbled out of the now famous Studio Ghibli on the same day, celebrating the way only children can see and appreciate the world as well as the power of imagination itself.