99% of all anime – no matter how great they are – are little beyond pieces of entertainment. Before I start receiving cries of outrage in the comments section, I must say that I mean no ill will by this statement; there is nothing wrong with anime serving this purpose. In fact, entertainment should be an anime’s primary focus; if it is boring, there’s no point in watching it. However, there are the select few anime that serve a higher purpose, a form of storytelling that goes beyond its medium. It could be a satire of otaku culture (Welcome to the NHK!), a dark, twisted look into the world of modern philosophy (Serial Experiments Lain), or the one I will be discussing in this review, a personal account of the plight of the Japanese people during World War II.
The story condenses the entire historical experience of the Japanese people during the late stages of World War II into the perspective of a typical teenage boy. Tragedies rain upon the boy and his little sister in the form of fire and bombs from the Americans. As an aside, the story does an excellent job of not overtly painting the Americans as evil, but displaying their evilness through their distance and facelessness.
The place where the story truly shines is its use of symbolism and motif. There are several reoccurring themes in the story represented by singular objects. Luxury and comfort are condensed into fruit drop candies. Death is represented by drops of fire (which is, by the way, how the word “fireflies” in the title is spelled in the Japanese kanji). Life is contained in the biological glow of hundreds of fireflies.
The anime’s ability to affect the viewer emotionally retains its value over the 22 years since its release in 1988. While I didn’t cry, I’m sure that others would. The contrast between the impact of Grave of the Fireflies and other animes is the sheer realism and bluntness of the story. “Not sugar coated” doesn’t even come close to how the plot is portrayed.
Unfortunately, with the advent of CGI and other improvements in technology, the animation in Grave of the Fireflies appears dated. It certainly was top of the line animation for its time, but it falls bellow a viewer’s expectation of top tier animation today. Imagine what the impact of the movie would be if it were animated today with a Hollywood animation budget.
Still, the animation contributes to the realism of the story, despite its dated appearance. Everything displayed in the foreground is depicted with precise detail, from the wrinkles in people’s clothing to the maggots that eat away at their flesh. Light, shadow, and water are all present in this movie and used to the full effect of that age’s technological capabilities.
If anyone can find more perfect voice acting, please tell me. How Setoko was voiced so well is beyond my comprehension. The even more awe inspiring part about the voice acting in the Japanese is that is almost equaled in the English dub. As for the soundtrack, it wouldn’t be one that I would buy, but the music did contribute to the eerie, dark atmosphere. There isn’t much more to say about the sound other than it was very well done and contributes greatly to the realism and effect of the anime.
There are only two named characters in the entire hour and a half long movie, Seita, the older brother, and Setoko, the younger sister. This contributes to the centrality of the viewer’s focus and the apparent selfishness of the characters, especially Seita. If seen from any other perspective, the viewer would likely see the pair as selfish freeloaders during a time when everyone should cooperate for the good of the whole.
Before I start getting hate mail, allow me to explain myself. Seita’s greatest weakness throughout the movie is his pride and self worth. However, these are all that Seita has left for most of the story after having lost everything of value to him. In the observation of Seita’s actions, the viewer feels conflicted between his or her own self pride and social justice. The question that the movie should prompt is “Would I do the same if I were in Seita’s situation?”
With all my gushing about the quality of Grave of the Fireflies, one might wonder why it isn’t at the top of my favorites list. Unfortunately, Grave of the Fireflies’ greatest shortfall is also its greatest strength. Its storytelling runs on a single track towards doom. Scene after scene the viewer becomes more and more depressed. Even the seemingly calm and cheerful scenes will either be disrupted by a reminder of the harsh reality of the situation, or be totally deconstructed by another tragedy.
Not to end by condemning the work, I must say that Grave of the Fireflies is not only an anime classic, but also a classic among war movies in general. Any fan of anime should watch it, but beyond that, I believe that the events that transpired in this movie should be taken into consideration whenever one feels inclined to violence and war.
This review is written in memory of all civilians killed in the history of humanity’s wars. May you never be forgotten.