Best Movie Ever: Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Posted on January 28, 2014



Grave of the Fireflies (Isao Takahata, 1988)

I thought cartoons were supposed to be fun.

Grave of the Fireflies is an animated war film that is every bit as gut-wrenching as any picture that involves actual humans portraying actual events. In fact, it’s probably more gut-wrenching. Gut-wrenching probably doesn’t do it justice. Grave of the Fireflies is fucking bleak. It opens with a teenage boy dying of starvation. Yeah, a good omen I suppose. The dying chap is our narrator for the entire film, and it tells the story of his attempts to survive and look after his little sister in the last days of World War Two in Japan. Their mum gets blasted to death, at which point they are forced to move in with their Aunt. Despite taking them in, it turns out the aunt is something of a dick, so they eventually move on and move in to an abandoned bunker.

Things look up as they start to approach life with childish delight and abandon. They fill their new home with fireflies to provide light and what follows is one of the most aesthetically stunning parts of the whole thing. Oh, but all the fireflies die of course, and are buried the next day. Realising the grim nature of the existence, the boy starts to steal from farms and loot houses during air raids. It doesn’t help too much though, as his sister is pretty severely malnourished by this point. So malnourished in fact, that she dies. From malnutrition. Because she was so malnourished. By this point, I just can’t. Holy moly. That whole ‘I made you rice balls’ bit, fuck. Grim. He decides to cremate her and leaves the shelter, never to return. Death, death, death.

Most people tend to view this as an anti-war film. Director Isao Takahata has denied this on a number of occasions, but I can’t help but feel that it’s irrelevant by this point. Why a film must be ‘pro-war’ or ‘anti-war’ is beyond me, not taking into account that anyone who is pro-war is obviously insane. Sure, Grave of the Fireflies is set during the second World War, but it is less about war and more about two orphaned children trying to survive, and ultimately their drawn out deaths. And that’s what this film basically is. It’s the protracted deaths of two children. Many films of this ilk will be all about how the human spirit triumphs in adversity, that we are all capable of anything. Not here, nope nope nope. In Grave of the Fireflies, the human spirit tries its best but fails, comes up just short. It may be animation, but it has managed to be more real to life than most films on a similar subject.

It is brutally unsentimental as well. Not many animated films would go to the lengths that Takahata did here. The scene when the boys maggot-infested dead mother is carried away is particularly brutal. It is this refusal to shy away from subject matter that kicks you so deep in the nuts. It isn’t all grim grim grim, there are moments in the film of sheer delight as mentioned previously. However, these are almost always punctuated by either an air raid or something equally miserable. So yeah, maybe it is all grim grim grim.

Still, it looks pretty.


Posted in: Cinema