Sunday, May 20, 2007

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Written & Directed by: Isao Takahata

Animated, 93 Minutes

Grade: A+

For decades, animation has been one of the most revolutionary tools in cinema. Why is it that so few directors have ever utilized it to the fullest potential? I mean, sure, there are many animated films that can be called great in one way or another, but there is rarely any sort of middle ground. We get all sorts of Disney cuteness (Bambi, Dumbo) that caters to kiddies, we even get post-apocalyptic, sci-fi, cyberpunk thrillers (Akira, Wicked City) for adults, but we rarely ever get any sort of balance between the two. Now, before you start throwing examples from the Shrek movies or the latest Pixar film at me, save it. Sure, they have quick-witted dialogue and even some sly double entendres, but they really aren't challenging to audiences. This is precisely why the films of Studio Ghibli stand far above any other animated films ever made. The Japanese studio is home to two great filmmakers, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. Miyazaki is quite possibly one of the most consistent filmmakers the world has ever seen. From My Neighbor Totoro to Princess Mononoke to the more recent Howl's Moving Castle, Miyazaki has churned out masterpiece on top of masterpiece. Isao Takahata, however, may be his equal in many ways, but his films are not as well known in America. Grave of the Fireflies is my first experience with Takahata, and if it's the only film of his that I ever see, I will still consider him one of the greats.

Toward the end of World War II, Japan is being firebombed by American forces. After their mother dies in one of the air raids, teenage boy Seita and his younger sister Setsuko are doing their best to survive. With their father serving in the Imperial Navy, the two siblings find refuge with their aunt. Because of food shortages, they are reduced to selling their mother's kimonos to buy rice. After a while, the children's aunt becomes overbearing, yelling at Seita because he doesn't attend school or have a job. Of course, the schools have all been destroyed, and besides the military or government, there are very few options for employment. Eventually the children have enough, and head out to fend for themselves. They turn an old bomb shelter into a living quarters, and they do what they can for food. They eat dried frogs, steal vegetables from local gardens, and even resort to looting other houses during air raids. All of this builds the story to a heartbreaking conclusion that will affect everyone who watches it.

Five minutes into this film, I totally forgot it was animated. The characters of Seita and Setsuko are so well-written, and so richly detailed that you perceive them as real people. You feel for them every step of the way. Like all of Studio Ghibli's films, the animation is extremely well done, but it is the content of this story that is surprising. Working from a semi-autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, Takahata gives us images of wartime terror and scenes so harrowing that they can easily rival any live action film. I won't spoil it for those who haven't seen it, but this film is incredibly emotional, and it's one of the most honest representations of a relationship between siblings that I've ever witnessed, calling to mind the father and son relationship at the center of DeSica's Bicycle Thieves. Not only does it transcend animation, but in terms of emotion it transcends nearly every anti-war film ever made, standing alongside films such as The Deer Hunter, and even Schindler's List.

So, why take such a shattering story and make it animated? Simply because a live action version would be too much for audiences to bear. In fact, there was a live action version made for Japanese television a couple years ago, but the word is that the story was told from the aunt's perspective. Big mistake. The children are the key. Being told from the perspective from two children, the film avoids politics. Not once does any character make any mention of America. We see the planes overhead, burning villages to the ground, but children don't concern themselves with patriotism. They are looking only for safety, and this is what makes the film so great. Fingers are never pointed, blame is never placed, because in war it doesn't matter who started it, it doesn't matter who finishes it, it only matters that it's over.

When it debuted in Japanese theaters, Grave of the Fireflies was the second film in a double feature with Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro. The two films couldn't be any more different. Totoro is endlessly delightful, where Fireflies is completely devastating. This terrible marketing strategy may have turned off most audience members in 1988, but seeing as how Totoro is my favorite animated film, I would have loved to have been there. That's a double feature that would put Grindhouse to shame.

Upon seeing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the legendary Russian director Sergei Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin) called it the greatest film ever made. One can only imagine what kind of praise he would have given this film had he lived to see it. I like to imagine that he would have had the same reaction as I did - silently sitting there, heartbroken, with tears in his eyes. This is an extremely powerful film, and it is not to be missed. Young children may be traumatized by it, but older, more mature children will get the message. Either way, I would recommend that parents view the film first. It is available on DVD, and if you haven't seen it then this should be the next film you watch. There are few films that I would recommend higher than this one.


H. Stewart said...

I don't think it's fair to write off Dumbo as kid's stuff; a lot of it's pretty heartbreaking. And just because the Pixar stuff may be simple doesn't mean that they aren't great films in that same way that It's a Wonderful Life is pretty great, not in spite of its thematic simplicity but largely because of it. (Shrek on the other hand is dreck.) But I do get your point about animated films not often addressing serious themes, and American animation in its pandering is in dire straits (with notable exceptions). Animation isn't often used to its greatest potential, and it seems like too often we get beautiful looking films that are substantially vacuous.

Anyway, I never miss a Miyazaki movie and I'm looking forward to the upcoming Paprika, and given the lavish praise you've heaped on this movie I'll have to toss it onto the queue!

Clayton L. White said...

No, I agree about Dumbo, Disney's films certainly have a purpose, and they can be quite touching, but not in the same way this film is. Disney's stuff can touch on some deep themes, but they have to keep a certain level of cuteness, that Fireflies avoids. For as heartbreaking as Bambi or Nemo or whatever can be, this film is just plain shattering, and we're not talking about the death of a deer here. That's what I was trying to get across.

H. Stewart said...

I know what you mean, Disney/Pixar sort of create an emotional distance by making their identificationable protagonists animals.

There's an article in the Times about the upcoming Paprika that touches on some of the points in this discussion, if you have the time to check it out.

Clayton L. White said...

I appreciate the link. Very good article. Satoshi Kon seems like a sharp guy, and now I just want to see Paprika even more. He really gets it, there is a place for the Disney/Pixar stuff, and there is a place for the hyper-violent anime, but there should also be that middle ground or mixture of the two.