Hailing from Studio Ghibli, home of Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Ponyo), Grave Of The Fireflies is a sophisticated, deeply moving film, adapted from Akiyuki Nosaka's 1967 semi-autobiographical novel by Isao Takahata.
It concerns the fate of two children, struggling to survive in Japan toward the end of the Second World War. Using the device of the protagonist narrating the story after his death, it's unequivocally tragic - but it's also potentially one of the most powerful war movies ever made, showing suffering not just from the perspective of the Japanese (unusual for Western audiences reared on US WWII fare), but also from that of non-combatant children. They're explicitly lambs to the slaughter, young lives cut off before their time. In fact, visually, the fireflies of the title are comparable with falling firebombs, but in symbolic terms they're analogous with the children - they shine brightly and die all too soon.
"September 21, 1945. That was the night I died," says Seita (voiced by Tsutomu Tatsumi in the original, J Robert Spencer in the US dub) as people walk past his wasted, barely teenage corpse in a railway station, only weeks after the Japanese surrender. The spirit of Seita walks into a field full of fireflies and joins the spirit of his four-year-old sister Setsuko (voiced by Ayano Shiraishi in the original, Rhoda Chrosite in the US dub). Together they travel into their own past.
When their mother is fatally injured in the firebombing of Kobe, the children go to live with a distant aunt (Akemi Yamaguchi; Amy Jones) in a small country town. Contact with the children's father, who is in the navy, is lost. When the aunt's embittered needling at Seita gets too much ("you lazy slug," she calls him, saying he should do more for the war effort), he decides to relocate to a small cave-like shelter with Setsuko, who barely understands the circumstances. However what starts out as an adventure soon becomes difficult. Resources are scarce. Setsuko gets ill, but Seita refuses to swallow his pride and return to the aunt's household. He also seems reluctant to try and approach the authorities for help.
Against exquisite hand-painted backgrounds, the children's lives fade. In reference to the war, one character comments "it's beginning to look hopeless", but such a sentiment also applies to the children's fate, as well as that of their nation. They are victims not just of the physical effects of the war but also the drying up of community sympathy and empathy, the collapse of civic infrastructures and the prevailing desperation that brings forth prejudice, and even pride. Seita, who refuses to - or is unable to - find help for himself and Setsuko is seen by many observers as the Japanese ego incarnate - the country unprepared to admit the defeat of "the glorious Japanese empire". Even the enemy here is not represented as an evil or heartless aggressor - the waves of bombers are faceless, remorseless, and are just part of the wider picture of the country suffering. The US is barely mentioned.
Instead, the action focuses on the daily lives of the children. Takahata uses motifs such as that of a tin of fruit drops, seen throughout, which gradually empties, to provide eloquent metaphors - the paint tarnishes and the sweets run out, much as the country's imperial facade crumbles and its resources dwindle.
Far from a sentimental anti-war tear-jerker, Takahata's Grave Of The Fireflies is a moving, honest tale of suffering, loss and a society unable to acknowledge its own predicament.
In a nutshell: Even though it's not exactly easy to watch the protracted deaths of two children, Grave Of The Fireflies is not only one of the greatest anime films ever made, but also an important (anti-) war film. A moving masterpiece.
By Daniel Etherington