Grave of Fireflies (Day 12)

Grave Of Fireflies MY OPINION: 7.3 || Not sure I’ve ever seen a sadder film. Sad, not depressing — big difference — because the story is so profoundly tender. This is delicate aesthetic ground to tread, with an ever-present risk of emotional manipulation. But the movie is so deeply felt and so true-to-life, that the tears it brings are honestly earned.

TITLE:  Grave of Fireflies (Hotaru no haka)
DIRECTOR:  Isao Takahata
LANGUAGE: Japanese | COUNTRY: Japan
YEAR: 1988
PROFILE: Drama, Animation 89 minutes | IMDb (8.4)

SYNOPSIS (Courtesy of Netflix): Orphans Seita (voiced by Tsutomu Tatsumi) and Setsuko (Ayano Shiraishi) fight for survival in post-World War II Japan. But society is harsh, and they come to the somber conclusion that they can neither escape the hardships of war nor find enough food to survive.

Strengths: It’s interesting to compare Grave of Fireflies with last week’s Bicycle Thieves. Many similarities: defeated countries at the end of World War II, the institutions of society failing to protect the vulnerable, good people driven to crime by their desperation. Grave of Fireflies is an overtly emotional film, with a more impressionistic atmosphere, whereas Bicycle Thieves works more as poignant social commentary. In that sense, despite the clear similarities, it also feels a bit like an apples-to-oranges comparison. (It’s also illustrative to compare this with yesterday’s selection, Knife In The Water, and leads me to feel even more critical of that film’s coldness.)

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Weaknesses: Not much. I could see some viewers finding fault with the music, which is plainly sentimental, and could say that the orphans’ moments of joy are too idealized. I fall on the side of believing that the film achieves the right balance between realism and sentiment.

 Technical: This is an early Studio Ghibli effort, and the animation is strong but not a primary virtue. That’s fine — I didn’t spend the film being enraptured by the image themselves (compared, say, to Spirited Away), but the Takahata and his animators weren’t shooting for that. The visuals are emotive, effective, and always right to the scene.


Acting: It’s relatively difficult to assess acting in an animated film, particularly when the language is foreign. But — Ayano Shiraishi. Not to go too heavy with film jargon, but holy cow. Her voicing of the little girl Setsuko is brilliant. If you’re an English speaker watching this film, please use the Japanese soundtrack. I’m sure the English voicing of Setsuko is just fine, but there’s no way that it equals what Shiraishi achieves. Even taking into account the audio-only nature of the performance, this really is an indelible rendering of a child. I’ll never forget it.

Story Telling: Takahata adapted the film from a novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, and much of the film’s power comes from the realism of the story. The orphans’ descent into abandonment is rendered with patience and fidelity to the natural ebb and flow of life. The children encounter good fortune as well as bad, experience small cruelties and small kindnesses, and there are moments of loveliness and joy — all of which is essential for maintaining both credibility and emotional balance.

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Best Scene: After the death of their mother, Seita and Setsuko are taken in by their aunt and her family. All goes well, but then the aunt begins to resent their presence, and the scene where she first turns on them has a stomach-dropping believability. Her character is one of the movie’s strongest points. It’s easy to imagine a more aesthetically clumsy film portraying her as a villain. Her attitude toward the orphans is ultimately reprehensible, but it’s also easy to understand. She has empathy, just not enough of it, and in times of stress and privation, empathy is the first thing to go. It’s a heartbreaking episode precisely because it rings so true to the way that real people behave.

File Under: sad, orphans, war, crime, animation, dignity