The idea of the cost of war has never been more thoughtfully and emotionally conveyed than in Isao Takahata’s “Grave of the Fireflies.” The 1988 animated film is still one of the most emotional and powerful films I’ve ever seen, it’s a film that completely transcends all ideas of storytelling, and destroys any stigma that animation is a child’s medium that is limited in scope and substances, especially when telling human stories.
While animation is a wonderful means of children’s entertainment, Hayao Miyazaki’s apprentice Isao Takahata uses the medium to tell easily one of the most crushing films I’ve ever seen. You could argue that it’s the most crushing dramatic film ever made, as it’s a movie that essentially won me over, but kept me from repeatedly watching it. “Grave of the Fireflies” is a masterpiece, but it’s also an emotionally taxing one that completely conveys that terrible effects war can have on everyone, including families. It’s not often movies leave me feeling completely deflated and drained, but “Grave of the Fireflies” accomplishes the task, and yet it’s a movie I strongly recommend to just about everyone I ever meet when discussing wonderful dramas.
Set at the end of World War II after the surrender of Japan, we meet young Seita who dies alone in a train station. Flashing back to his youth, we meet Seita before his death as well as his baby sister Setsuko. Growing up during the last days of World War II, they survive with the rations and provisions from their father who is serving in the military. When their mother dies a horrible death from burns suffered from an American fire bombing raid, Seita and Setsuko are sent to live with a distant aunt they barely know. As food grows scarce, their aunt begins to mistreat the pair of siblings, forcing Seita to run away with his sister and seek out an existence free from violence and misery.
But the situation gradually becomes more and more difficult as food runs lows and Setsuko becomes deathly ill. The existence between the pair of siblings is often painted as bittersweet, as they manage to find the beauty out of their surroundings and savor what time they have with each other. But it becomes painfully clear that their time is all but limited, especially as Seita can barely manage to feed himself, let alone his baby sister. The truly gut wrenching turn of events involving Setsuko’s illness and her deteriorating health amounts to painful stakes for Seita who looks for every reason to keep Setsuko smiling and alive, but can barely fight the force of her ailing health.
Based on a short story by Ariyki Nosaka who lived through this ordeal, coming out of the film is a struggle in itself. Imagining how anyone dealt with this situation, including watching their own baby sister slowly die before their eyes gives “Grave of the Fireflies” an extra dimension of devastating sadness. Isao Takahata’s masterful direction paired with the amazing animation turns “Grave of the Fireflies” in to a compelling and heartfelt drama exploring the price of war, and the bonds of family.