This film is a sad, brutal and unforgiving experience. But its something everybody should endure.
Grave of the Fireflies (1988) is an animated Studio Ghibli film directed by Isao Takahata. It follows a brother and sister duo, Seita (Robert Spencer, dubbed) and Sestuko (Corinne Orr) living in Japan during the end of World War 2 as bombs rain down and the country is in economic strife.
Firstly, bring tissues. Even the most hardened Jock is going to be struggling to keep a straight face by the end of this film – it smashes you over the head again and again with one sad scene after another. The most incredible thing in this film is, particularly in contrast with the fantastical elements of many other Ghibli films, is how grounded Fireflies feels. While there is some spiritual imagery, the vast majority of the film follows a very believable and authentic story (likely due to being based on an autobiography) and never skews too far into unbelievable territory. The film possesses an intense focus, keeping our gaze solely on the exploits of these siblings amongst all the carnage and tragedy wreaked around them.
And they are marvellous characters. Drawing from the cheerful child archetype of so many other films, Fireflies thrusts their carefree nature into an apocalyptic setting, as we watch them slowly breakdown before our eyes. Sympathetic and yet harshly authentic, both Seita and Setsuko are easy protagonists to follow, as difficult as they become to watch as the film progresses. Aside from those two, the only other character to speak of is their begrudged aunt who takes them in after their Mother is injured. And here lies the only fault I could find in Fireflies. Simply put, the dubbed voice for the Aunt is horrendous. She hinders every conversation and scene she appears in, ruining several key emotional moments with a really stilted and artificial delivery. Luckily she’s far from the focus so most of the film remains unsoiled by her voice.
To briefly touch on the animated aspect of Fireflies, this is a prime example of the genre being able to appeal to adults potentially even more than children. The animation style skews towards realism rather than style, which is a logical move considering the film’s subject matter. Its also peppered with a number of recurring images, and some beautiful symbols – the titular fireflies are used to their full effect, through some gorgeous shots and a few key touching images.
While much of its message and imagery may be too difficult for children to bear, everyone else should absolutely experience this film. It may be brutally emotional, but its something everybody should endure for its gorgeous imagery, grounded focus and fascinating messages. Has to be one of the greatest animated films of all time, and one of Studio Ghibli’s best.
General Audiences: Must-see
Film Buffs: Must-see