Say, isn't Studio Ghibli the one that makes those really cute movies about forest spirits and flying castles? Uh-huh, but it's also the one that in one ninety-minute masterstroke makes you question every ounce of faith you had in society. When the terms ‘heart-rending', ‘abject misery' and ‘oh my God, I'm going to kill myself' were invented, it was with this movie in mind. It's not due to whimsy that this anime is titled Grave of the Fireflies - there is not even a glimmer of light at the end of this tunnel.
And that is precisely what makes this film so beautiful; it does not once flinch from the direst possibilities of human existence, but portrays misery in such a way that we never stop believing this story is worth telling. The film has a different sort of pacing, a refreshing angle on war, and brings a unique flavour to unconditional love, suffering and endurance. Watching it feels a lot like running through quicksand; the obstacles keep piling on, and the more the protagonists claw away at them, the faster they seem to sink beneath their weight. Especially poignant are the interspersed moments of happiness used to relieve the constant anguish, for they usually happen to everyone but Seita and Setsuko. For the characters involved it seems there is no point, but for us, the viewers, it is a vital learning curve.
Perhaps the film's only drawback is that, being such an emotional journey, you rarely feel like revisiting it. I first watched Grave of the Fireflies many years ago (after reading ‘Ghibli' on the back of the DVD and mistakenly assuming it was a Miyazaki film), but since then, this review has been the only excuse I've had to rewatch it. I'll confess that I started sobbing again in the first five minutes because the haunting scenes awoke emotional memories (not actual vivid memories) of the things that were about to happen to the children. Considering I haven't cried like this since the Auschwitz episode in Band of Brothers, I take that as testament to the film's subtle, timeless power.
The quality of animation is fantastic, and that it still looks so good even after all these years is to Ghibli's credit. There are some beautiful details of the grass and the sky reflected in the water in a montage of Setsuko playing by the river. Contrast that with the hellish red hues of the war scenes and what I like to call the ‘ghost' scenes, and you have a movie that weaves a bittersweet undertone into its very fabric. My favourite moment is after the shells fall in the beginning and Seita looks around to see shots of a ladder, a bucket and mop, and a trough - it just so perfectly captures the ordinary amidst the nightmarish devastation. The character designs are of the typical simplistic Ghibli variety, with certain personalities having quirky features. Movement is always perfectly smooth. Where Setsuko is concerned, they simply must have observed a bunch of kids in natural play, for her movements, habits and mannerisms are nothing but realistic. Not to mention that I looked for repeat frames as people ran from the bomb blasts and found there were none.
In terms of the Japanese voice acting, everyone is brilliant, but Setsuko stands out as the pinnacle. As well as being animated realistically, she must surely be voiced by some kind of super seiyuu. Even if you don't like kids (which I don't), you'll still find yourself saying, ‘Ah' at her innocent speeches. The American voice actors in comparison don't come across as mesmerising, mainly because of the difference in pacing, but they do an acceptable job. The soundtrack, although not a prominent feature in itself, is suitably haunting.
The only excuse you could have not to care for Seita and Setsuko is that you're dead. At times, empathy is taken to such excruciating levels that you wonder whether you can take any more. Yet somehow Grave of the Fireflies never ranges into the realms of melodrama and petty sentimentality, meaning you never lose interest in the siblings and their plight.
Setsuko is adorable, temperamental and ignorant of any wider implications (just as a baby should be), whilst Seita is a teenager abandoned in a cold adult world way before his time, and with nothing to cling to but his sister. The two are characterised almost wholly in these terms, which made it easy to view them as representatives of all children of war. They are not brave, independent children, but lost children - lost through war, lost through time, lost through memory. We see so many touching moments between them, that it's impossible to pick out the most important; from Setsuko showing her brother all the ‘money' she has saved, to Seita trying to hold her in his loneliness and being rebuffed, each one takes on such harrowing significance in retrospect.
The supporting characters are realistic enough considering the few minutes we get to spend with each of them, and rightly so, since this is meant to be a historical portrayal. Although not complex in themselves, each of the cast brings a new insight into the uncompromising culture that's developed in response to the terrible times. For example, although Seita's aunt can justifiably be viewed as a miserly bitch, the fact is that food is scarce and her primary concern is for her own family. This is a dog-eat-dog world steeped in conflict, and as terrible as it sounds, two orphan kids are the least of everyone's problems.
Grave of the Fireflies is no less than a classic masterpiece. Watch it if you're dying for an overwhelming emotional experience; watch it if you fancy a no-bullshit plunge into the decay of humanity; and by all means watch it with a box of tissues. Don't watch it if you're looking for another Miyazaki fairy tale.
ANIME EVOLUTION SERIES
Full list of the review series can be found on this page, 3rd post from bottom:
The 80’s were the decade when the atrocities of war stopped being taboo and several anime were made to depict the aftereffects, the most direct of which was Barefoot Gen with the bombing of Hiroshima. Grave of the Fireflies takes a rather different approach to the subject by focusing solely on its characters and not on the actual catastrophe, in this case the bombing of the Kobe area. That is after all what makes this movie unique; it is more about the mentality of the characters and not of the actual destruction. In a way, it is a far more dramatic and realistic version of Barefoot Gen and its idealistic characters with their positive attitude and an ending that gives you hope for the future. This movie does the exact opposite; it starts by telling you that the kids will not have a good ending (thus not a spoiler) and then begins a flashback showing what exactly happened.
The movie also shows a lot of the bad side of humanity, with the Japanese being cruel to one another in their struggle to find enough to survive to the point they become uncaring even towards the suffering of children. It is at the same time not without its sparks of hope for a better future, especially in the scene with the kids burying the dead fireflies and wishing them better luck in their next life. That makes sense for those who believe in reincarnation and not one life and then straight to heaven or hell; thus from a Japanese perspective the ending hints that the kids may get a second chance in their next life (thus the meaning behind the name of the movie).
The movie practically shows the aftereffects of the destruction through the eyes of the two main siblings. It is meant to present the world with their innocence, their pure minds not tainted from the various social-political issues behind the war and the deaths of their relatives. They do not understand all that, nor do they care to find out. They are just trying to have a happy life with survival being a much secondary issue. When finally that issue does arise because they have nothing to eat, they still try to reason everything with their child innocence, thus once more the whole movie is in a way a criticism against the real reasons of the war. The grown ups make wars for various agendas but the children do not understand or care about them, yet suffer the consequences nonetheless. It is a much more poetic and direct form of anti-war message compared to Barefoot Gen and its over-the-top focus on making the explosion to look horrifying and the survivors to suffer yet try to find hope and move on. And that is why I consider it far more mature and superior as well.
The production values are also very good for its time, with the characters being full of lively motions and the backgrounds looking plain albeit detailed in secondary areas, such as textures and physics. The elegiac BGM and the innocent voices of the children, as well as the occasional cruel ones of the adults manage to create a much appropriate atmosphere that may even bring tears to all the not-so-good-at-self control viewers. Another thing that is done in a far better way than Barefoot Gen, where visuals and voice acting are so bad you feel like laughing at points.
And now for some excused scorings.
ART SECTION: 9/10
General Artwork 2/2 (well-done)
Character Figures 1/2 (generic)
Backgrounds 2/2 (detailed)
Animation 2/2 (good)
Visual Effects 2/2 (symbolic)
SOUND SECTION: 8/10
Voice Acting 3/3 (fitting with the feeling of the series)
Music Themes 3/4 (not great but fitting with the feeling of the series)
Sound Effects 2/3 (ok I guess)
STORY SECTION: 9/10
Premise 2/2 (interesting)
Pacing 2/2 (good)
Complexity 1/2 (not much)
Plausibility 2/2 (fine)
Conclusion 2/2 (powerful)
CHARACTER SECTION: 7/10
Presence 1/2 (generic)
Personality 2/2 (cheesy but well founded)
Backdrop 1/2 (simplistic but it’s there)
Development 1/2 (overblown but it’s there)
Catharsis 2/2 (symbolically, a lot)
VALUE SECTION: 8/10
Historical Value 3/3 (all-known)
Rewatchability 1/3 (low because of too much overblown drama)
Memorability 4/4 (extremely tragic to the point of forever remembering it)
ENJOYMENT SECTION: 10/10
In all, this is for me the best anti-war drama ever made in anime. It is not afraid to show the cruel side of man next to the innocence of children and end in a very tragic way for the viewers to despise war and sympathize with the characters even more. A very successful movie for what it was made for.
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.
This is a great movie, but it's so hard to rate because it broke my heart. I didn't realize it was going to be such a depressing movie, as I grabbed it more because it has ties to Studio Ghibli. I didn't really look at the plot synopsis or the like. Not to say I wouldn't have still picked it up, as WWII is one of those time periods that fascinates me.
This is the story of Seita and Setsuko, two children who are just trying to survive growing up during WWII in Japan. Their struggles were heartbreaking, but I loved seeing how they strived to overcome the world around them, doing their best to stay positive and move forward. This movie does an amazing job at capturing what it must have been like for the Japanese citizens at this time.
I cried at the end. I was really hoping things would somehow turn out different than what the beginning of the movie implies, but instead it broke my heart.
A few days later, and I still can't get this movie out of my head. I think it's an important one for people to see, as it's a great reminder that behind the faceless enemy of a country/government/people, there are many innocent people suffering and in need of help. The world is not as black and white as we pretend it to be.
So I put off watching this one because it was held up as an amazing movie that was guaranteed to make me cry. And it did, but like in the way where you'll laugh at a YouTube video that's only a few minutes long. The feeling is actually pretty shallow, and the whole purpose of the movie was to make you cry. The beginning of the movie has the main character die, and you're aware that the main characters will both be dead by the end within the first five minutes. The story is how they get there.
Animation: 9/10 It's actually really pretty. Better for the time, but it has a classic animation to it that is really nice after watching newer anime look identical no matter the story or genre.
Sound: 7/10 I don't really remember it much, but it was pretty good. Nothing bad to say.
Story: 2/10 There really wasn't one, to be honest. It was just about how a child went from a normal boy to homeless and dying in a train station after WW2.
Characters: 4/10 So Seita was decent, until my husband pointed out that he probably could've saved his sister's life by sucking it up and going back to his aunt. Yeah she was a bitch, but when it's your life vs. your pride, choose your life. Setsuko was a cute little girl... and that's it. The movie tries to make you care about her once she dies with a montage of her being a cute child, but that's really all she is. I can't tell you much about her. The same goes for Seita.
Overall, I wish I had seen the movie with someone telling me it was a sad but plotless movie. I've watched other Ghibli movies that are only trying to elicit an emotion out of you, but all of those fall flat for me while others praise them. So I was pretty disappointed with this one, especially after the hype I had heard about it.