Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru No Haka) (1988)

As an uncle, as a brother, the oldest of three, and as a son, “Grave of the Fireflies” was a grueling film to sit through. Being a victim of a horrible sequence of events and watching your loved one fade away is something I’m all too familiar with. Watching “Grave of the Fireflies,” possibly the most heart-breaking film I’ve seen in years, you will know what that’s like too. Isao Takahatacreates a film that doesn’t need ghouls and goblins and fairies. It’s all frightening enough.

The villain here is not an entity but war itself. War that manages to affect the wrong people. To put it quite bluntly, I defy you to keep from breaking into tears during Takahata’s basic masterpiece. Based on a true story from Akiyuki Nosaka’s novel, Seita and Setsuko are villagers in Japan who are witnessing their country being ravaged by World War II and the endless air raids by American soldiers. Left orphaned at such a young age, the two struggles to survive on their own, in the wilderness and fight to look for food and water. Takahata’s film is a gradually depressing and utterly adult tale of two people affected by a merciless war, and the struggle of Seita to stick close to his sister and preserve her innocence in the face of death and utter suffering. This is a boy who must keep his spirits high and sadness in check in the face of his baby sister who longs for home and their parents.

Takahata shows not only what war can do to each of us, but what strength we can muster up to help our loved ones in time of our great sadness. The original author of the novel, Nosaka, lived through all the events that took place here, and blamed himself for the unfolding of events that occur in front of the audience, and knowing this will set you into a further state of sheer sadness as it did me. Takahata’s film is, as usual, a marvelous piece of animated drama, with some of the most amazing visuals that are a pre-requisite with Studio Ghibli. With a proper mixture of drama, and a slight of fantasy, Takahata explores how war drags down the smallest of people, regardless of who is fighting it. “Grave of the Fireflies” is the wonderful lasting mark of a true artist. You’d be hard pressed to recommend this to anyone who is willing to endure it, and you’d be hard pressed not to find it overwhelming.