Not many wars in human history are as close to being as “black and white” than that of World War II, especially in the minds of most Westerners. However, as with all wars, the battles waged in the name of of something close to a perfect and idyllic world (which either side of war is ultimately striving for) always come at the price of those lives caught in the fires of battles between powerful men exhausting their weapons upon one another. For Akiyuki Nosaka, the author of the novel on which this film, GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES, is based off of, World War II was nothing more than a cascading event of cruelty and violence inflicted upon the citizens of Japan at the hands of their enemy, the United States. Tragedy endured by Nosaka found something close to catharsis in the creation of his novel and later, in Isao Takahata’s anime film produced by the premier anime film studio, Studio Ghibli. In Nosaka’s novel, the “War To End All Wars” brought death and loss; and in the hands of Takahata, a beautifully realized illustration of a journey towards personal loss amid world changing events.
Centering on 14-year old Seita (Tsutomu Tatsumi) and his younger sister Setsuko (Ayano Shiraishi), themselves avatars for Nosaka and his own sister, GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES paces itself in a sort of “slice-of-life” fashion, moving at a leisurely speed through never-ending tragedy. Even as the film opens with Seita’s hometown being bombarded by Allied firebombs, which explode and crackle in a simultaneously beautiful and nightmarish blend of vibrant oranges and reds, Seita and his younger sibling still manage to find brief moments of levity and downtime amid the rubble. Therein lies the weight of FIREFLIES’ emotional power: seeing a boy not even old enough to drive a car, much less care for his younger sister during a devastating war, try desperately to keep his sister shielded away from the horrors of war. With such dreary and hopeless surroundings, it’s a minor miracle that GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES finds earned moments of beauty in all the devastation, both in terms of its animation and its deeper emotional themes.
As with other Studio Ghibli films, the literal artistry on display, from the hands of a bountiful and talented team of animators, is impeccable. Every image, whether in motion or at a stand still in the background, is detailed but never feels like it calls attention to itself. It simply breathes and allows the viewers to find their own nuggets of beauty hidden behind all the terror and destruction of war. When GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES shows those terrors, colors whip and flourish, evoking a living hell that burns with impressive construction and when the quiet, peaceful moments found between bombings and death arrive, the team of animators unleash beautiful blues, greens, and whites to reveal an oasis of Earthly beauty that our young protagonists take shelter in. In those moments of peace, composer Michio Mamiya’s nostalgic and bittersweet score shines, pleasant instrumentals that only add to the tragic air of the film. At times, with such ever shifting visuals and moods, as war usually does bring for the civilians caught in the middle of it all, Takahata’s film falls into a vicious cycles of minor victories and devastating trials. It takes a toll emotionally on the viewer but even so Takahata and his team never wallow in pure misery.
Stellar animation aside, it helps that the director has a genuinely impressive duo of performances at his disposal as the age-appropriate likes of Mr. Tatsumi and Ms. Shiraishi bring wrenching humanity to their vocal performances. While the two performers are not always consistent with their emotional performances, that very inexperience with conveying a controlled sense of emotion only adds to the realism of two young children caught in an unimaginable scenario. Sadly, while the overall general plight of seeing two children trying to survive World War II on their own is dramatic enough, it’s a shame that Seita and his sister don’t feel that fleshed out by the time the film comes to its quiet and somber ending. The ending still manages to sting in what isn’t said (but is plainly visible after a full watch) but I feel that the conclusion would’ve benefitted if Seita and Setsuko had personalities that stretched out past basic precociousness and self-reliance.
Additionally, the aforementioned relative “leisure-ness” of the film also restricts it from latching on any heavier, emotionally speaking. The film never becomes boring per se — and how could it, considering the topic at hand, however much a war film can be “exciting” — but Takahata’s soft guide of the film’s pace leads to a film that never really reaches a climax that holds off any deeper emotional release, which may be the point I suppose. After all, for many innocents caught in the crosshairs of Allied and Axis bombs alike, their lives were here until they simply weren’t, like breezes on a pond. GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES as a whole feels like that, a film that whiffs around for a moment and then passes nonchalantly to another plane before you realize that it has nestled itself into your head, like a sort of memory that burns. For Akiyuki Nosaka and Isao Takahata, for the innocents who lost their lives to wars that were not their own, the tale of little Seita and Setsuko lasts after its final reel as both memorial and mourning.