Grave of the Fireflies

Legion (Former Staff) — March 19th, 2000
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My latest viewing of Grave of the Fireflies has proven to me once again the power and emotional impact contained within the heart-wrenching story and imagery of this film. To this day, I've yet to make it to the end of GotF without having some kind of emotional breakdown, be it a series of teary-eyed sobs or the appearance of a lump in the back of my throat, just barely holding back my grief in watching the progression a seemingly hopeless situation. This viewing was no different, the emotional force not having been dulled in the slightest by my previous viewings.

The story starts out at it's own conclusion as a ghostly apparition of a young boy, Seita, sets the scene with the chilling words, "September 21, 1945... That was the night I died." The setting of his death is a train station where we find a malnourished Seita, seemingly devoid of hope or reason, surrounded by the bustle of various passers-by, who appear more concerned with the disgrace of his mere presence than for his well-being. His dead body is later found by a pair of janitors, along with the bodies of several other youths. Seita's fruit drop container is examined by one of the janitors, but finding it's ashy contents relatively useless, he discards the container into a nearby field. A group of fireflies, disturbed by the arrival of the container, take flight and light the scene for Seita's ethereal reunion with his younger sister, Setsuko.

Akin to many great tragedies, the audience is privy to what fate is set to befall the main characters. Fortunately, the intriguing and enthralling nature of the film doesn't lie in the what of the tale, but in the why and the how, and this is exactly what is learned through the telling of Seita and Setsuko's story.

Setsuko, innocence personified and a cutie to boot. In the midst of Kobe under fire.

While the screenplay was written and directed by Takahara Isao, the story was based on an original novel by Nosaka Akiyuki. This original story was somewhat autobiographical in nature as a number of parallels exist between it and Nosaka's own life, such as the loss of his sister to malnutrition during World War II. As such, GotF's story takes place near the end of the second World War in Kobe. Forced from their home under heavy firebombing, Seita and Setsuko soon face the first of their countless losses, the burning down of their house and the subsequent death of their mother. Despite finding shelter with an aunt, they are offered little solace for their grief and tensions quickly rise, leading to the first of Seita's fatal missteps.

Much of the intriguing and emotionally painful conflict in the story arises from the impasse between Seita's love for his sister, wishing to protect her and provide for her as best he can, and his sense of pride. Being nearly a man, Seita is determined to fill the void left by the loss of his mother for Setsuko with or without the help of his aunt. Unfortunately, being still too much a boy, he is woefully ill-equipped to handle such a responsibility. As a result, we are shown the ease with which a couple of children can fall between the cracks of a war torn society.

Despite having been created in the late eighties, the animation quality holds up well even to today's standards. You won't see any flamboyant camera tricks or spectacular special effects that are made easier today with the use of computer animation, but in it's place you can expect to be treated to fluid and lifelike animation. A "soft-brown border" technique is mentioned in the production notes and I found that it lent itself well to a softer, more realistic look than standard anime fare. Heavy use of earth tones in the color scheme also help to set up a true to life atmosphere that complements the serious subject matter nicely.

The character designs follow the same trend as the animation, going the route of realism as opposed to the exaggerated facial features common to anime. It's almost possible to forget you're simply watching animated characters and become completely spellbound by the drama unfolding before your eyes thanks to the authenticity of the character designs and detailed backdrops. The facial design and animation also maintain a high level of realism and manage to convey some of the most poignant emotion I've ever seen, from Setsuko's shining smile to Seita's contorted weeping.

The visuals aren't without their problems though. The master print used to create the digital DVD master was nearly ten years old and it shows it's age. There are a number of visual anomalies that come up from time to time, but it's nothing too major or distracting. The real problem comes in the form of what I believe to be digital artifacting, most likely caused by compression glitches. On my television set the problem was negligible, but when watching it on my computer monitor (with a Creative Dxr2 decoder) a rainbow effect was quite noticeable from time to time. While this problem wasn't detrimental either, it had the potential to be distracting.

On the audio side of things, the music was somewhat subdued, but very good nonetheless. There weren't any really catchy tunes or moments in which the music took center stage, but the tone of the movie wasn't very conducive to an overpowering score anyway. The music was quite effective at complementing the mood of a given scene, helping to create the perfect atmosphere, and had a decidedly haunting effect at times.

The Japanese voice acting was a real treat as well. I'd be hard pressed to find a role that I didn't find convincing and well acted. The range of emotion displayed by both Seita and Setsuko was superb, Setsuko hitting a perfect balance between the voice of a young child, while avoiding too much of the cute and squeaky voice that seems to run rampant throughout many anime (not that I have anything against cute and squeaky =) . I was less tolerant of the dub though, but from what I heard it was quite respectable, with the possible exception of Setsuko. While I immediately fell in love with her Japanese counterpart, I found her English voice acting simply annoying. I'm not generally fond of dubs though, so your mileage may vary.

GotF isn't a movie about pointing fingers or saying who were the bad guys during the war, but rather acts as a portrayal of war in general as a destructive force that often lays waste to the most innocent of children. This film offers a grave and solemn look at the effects of war at the most human of levels and is an undeniable masterpiece both as an historical drama and a powerful anti-war message. I'd love to recommend GotF to absolutely everyone, but I'm afraid that I'd be acting irresponsibly in doing so. The disturbing nature of the subject matter might not be suitable for all viewers and not everyone will be able to handle having their emotions sent through a meat grinder. Nonetheless, I'd like to tell anyone who feels up to the experience to see this movie. It's well worth it.

- Legion

Distributor: Central Park Media
Creator: Studio Ghibli
Released: 1988

Plot: A+
Character Design: A
Animation Quality: A
Music: B
Overall: A