Grave of the Fireflies Anime Review
Hotaru no Haka
US Release By
World War II Homefront Drama
What's In It
- War Seen From The Homefront
- Unrelenting Tragedy
- Violence: 2 (moderate)
- Nudity: 1 (mild)
- Sex: 0 (none)
- Language: 1 (mild)
In the latter part of World War II, a boy and his sister, orphaned when their mother is killed in a firebombing raid, are left to survive on their own in what remains of civilian life in Japan. As the situation grows progressively worse in the war, things deteriorate proportionally on the homefront. We follow Seita and Setsuko as they do their best to survive in the Japanese countryside, battling hunger, prejudice, and pride in their own personal war.
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"Powerful," "moving," "touching," and "great" are words frequently used by people to describe movies, but this is one of the very few cases where they are most sincerely deserved. Simultaneously an allegory of human failings and a quiet but unflinching look at two children caught in the peripheral effects of a war, Grave of the Fireflies is one of the most painful and affecting movies you're ever likely to see, animated or otherwise. The slow-motion tragedy is presented in subtle but beautifully detailed animation in the steady-handed, minutely realistic style of Ghibli director Isao Takahata.
Grave of the Fireflies is a touching and extremely painful movie to watch, but it's not an idle tearjerker--it is direct, honest, thought provoking, and worth watching by anyone. Just make sure you're ready for it before you start; it has been said by many that it's a movie you can only bring yourself to watch once.
Full ReviewSwitch to Quick Review
"Powerful," "moving," "touching," and "great" are words frequently used by people to describe movies, but this is one of the very few cases where they are most sincerely deserved. No less than Roger Ebert called Grave of the Fireflies "one of the greatest war movies ever made," and far from hyperbole, that's exactly the level of praise that accurately describes it.
Simultaneously an allegory of human failings and a quiet but unflinching look at two children caught in the peripheral effects of a war, Grave of the Fireflies is one of the most painful and affecting movies you're ever likely to see, animated or otherwise. An oft-repeated comment is that, as much as people love the film and are deeply moved by it, they can't bring themselves to watch it again.
The fact that it is animated gives simple actions and scenes a beauty and innocence that would not have existed otherwise, enhancing the contrast with the harsh and painful realities experienced by the characters. On that subject, note that although Grave of the Fireflies was produced by the famed Studio Ghibli, it is not one of Miyazaki's films. Directed by Isao Takahata, another Ghibli master who specializes in personal scale and minute detail, the visual style might be familiar, but My Neighbor Totoro this is not, and you should brace yourself before you start watching.
Grave of the Fireflies is in some ways uplifting in its portrayals of simple beauty in the darkest of situations and the strength of the human spirit. But, although it never resorts to heavy-handed tragedy or melodrama, this tale of two children standing in the face of adversity and slowly falling victim to a host of human frailties--suspicion, prejudice, and pride--is unsparing and deeply tragic from start to finish.
At first glance, one might get the idea that the story is intended as a kind of anti-American propaganda. In truth, it is nearly the opposite. Although the children fall victim to the hardships brought on by the war, no Americans ever appear, and they are rarely mentioned. If anything, the film could be seen as a metaphor for the entire country of Japan during the war: fighting a losing battle, yet too stubbornly proud to admit defeat and reach out for help.
Similarly, it can be taken as a condemnation of pride. The story is based on a semi-autobiographical novel written by Nosaka Akiyuki, a man who survived the war on the homefront, but whose younger sister died of starvation while in his care. On that level, it may have been a sort of catharsis, harshly depicting the result of Seita's unwillingness to seek help or resort to theft to obtain food. And, ultimately, allowing his grief to consume and punish him for that decision--something that never happened to the real person.
Metaphor and symbolism aside, the enemy in Grave of the Fireflies is painted as the kind of human weaknesses that come from and even create war: pride, the suspicion that falls upon two children trying to live on their own, and the prejudice leveled against a healthy young man who doesn't want to fight.
Above all, though, the enemy in this story is war--you never see a battle or an army, but the tragic effects of war on even the idyllic countryside far removed from the front are all too tangible. Grave of the Fireflies puts a human face on the civilian population of Japan during the war--something few movies have done, and none have done so well.
Moreover, it manages to do so in a painful and realistic manner that remains understated, avoiding histrionics and broad drama. Either in spite of this or as a result of it, it is almost too painful to watch, but equally difficult to take your eyes off.
All this, and it is animated--anyone who thinks animation can't tell a realistic story with impact has never seen this movie, and should be required to do so.
Even on the level of pure visual craftsmanship, Grave of the Fireflies is a masterwork. Being by studio Ghibli, it is no surprise that the character designs are reminiscent of those in other Ghibli films, and while it is otherwise quite different from their usual subject matter, the quality is not. The animation, though subdued, is fluid and surprisingly realistic; just watching the everyday actions onscreen gave me a new appreciation of animation as an art form. Try taking the time to really watch the animation in a few scenes--you might be surprised. The art is not spectacular, but is well done, and has a slightly old-fashioned style that feels appropriate to the setting.
Finally, there's the acting, which in Japanese is extremely good among the tiny cast--there are only four major roles, all filled by live-action actors, as is often the case with Ghibli productions. In particular, five-year-old Ayano Shiraishi as Setsuko turns in one of the most convincing pieces of acting for a child I've ever seen--neither too cute nor too articulate.
The orchestral score rounds out the aural picture, providing emotional undertones without ever forcing or even encouraging a response--the film needs no help with that.
Grave of the Fireflies is a touching and extremely painful film to watch, but it's not an idle tearjerker. This movie is direct, honest, thought provoking, and worth watching by anyone. Just make sure you're ready for it before you start.
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Rail of the Star has a similar theme, but is not as well done as Grave of the Fireflies. Rail of the Star is also much closer to the uplifting end of the emotional spectrum. On a far lighter note, several of Ghibli's other slice-of-life productions, most notably Whisper of the Heart, share the same attention to detail.
Notes and Trivia
Grave of the Fireflies is based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Nosaka Akiyuki of the same title. There are also two live-action movie adaptations: a 2005 TV movie produced to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of the war, and an unrelated 2008 film.
This animated adaptation is by Studio Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki's famed animation workshop. Unlike many Ghibli productions, Miyazaki had nothing to do with it; it was both directed and scripted by Isao Takahata. Interestingly enough, it ran as a double bill with My Neighbor Totoro when they were first released theatrically in Japan (neither movie was apparently expected to succeed commercially).
The tiny Japanese voice cast is made up entirely of non-voice-actors. The casting is unusually true-to-life; 4-year-old Setsuko is voiced by actual 5-year-old (at the time of recording) Ayano Shiraishi, while 14-year-old Seita is voiced by 16-year-old Tsutomu Tatsumi. The former had appeared in one TV show, while the latter had been in several TV shows previously, but neither had any notable career subsequent to this film. The only other significant characters, the mother and aunt, are both voiced by veteran TV actors.
Rather than the phonetic characters or kanji usually used to write "firefly" ("hotaru" - ホタル or 蛍), the title uses a nonstandard set of characters roughly meaning "dripping fire" (火垂る). This could be a reference to the incendiary bomblets dropped during the air raid, or any of a number of fire or firefly-related bits of symbolism present in the movie.
I rarely mention other reviewers, but Roger Ebert's review of Grave of the Fireflies for the Chicago Sun-Times includes, in addition to praise rarely given to an anime film by the mainstream press, a number of very interesting analyses that only someone well versed in film history could come up with, and also cites a number of other sources analyzing the film, the book, and their content. I found it quite interesting if for no other reason than the quotes from other sources, and I recommend a look.
US DVD Review
There are three DVD versions. The newest, and only one in print, is a single-disc release from Section23 that lists no specific special features apart from Japanese and English audio and English subtitles.
It was previously available on two different editions from Central Park Media. The newer special edition was impressive; it had the movie in anamorphic widescreen video, bilingual audio, and alternate-angle storyboards on the first disc. The second DVD includes a variety of interviews (including, oddly enough, one with the oft-quoted Roger Ebert), biographies, historical information, and trailers.
The older single-disc DVD version is, like CPM's other early releases, rather basic--it includes a chapter index, subtitle track, and the Japanese and English stereo soundtracks, along with short intros of the main characters. The video is non-anamorphic letterboxed widescreen.
A very painful movie to watch, and is just too sad for younger children, though it's also probably too quiet to interest them; in the 13-up range, mostly because of the painful content.
Violence: 2 - One scene of a fire bombing.
Nudity: 1 - A few scenes involving bathing.
Sex/Mature Themes: 0 - None.
Language: 1 - Mild language.
Currently available in North America on bilingual DVD from Section23, previously ADV. Was previously available from the late Central Park Media (one of only a handful of releases from CPM directly, rather than a sub-brand), originally on subtitled or dubbed VHS and a basic bilingual DVD, and later on a special edition 2-disc set that included a full disc of extras