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PopGap #09: Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

PopGap #09: Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Directed by Isao Takahata
Written by dorrk
29 September 2015

The Flickchart Top 250: 4 left to go

My Flickchart Rank: #788
Global Flickchart Rank: #236

One of my prevailing complaints about the animated movies from Japan's Studio Ghibli is that they often devolve into a morass of fantasy nonsense inside which I cannot find a handle. Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies is the complete opposite approach — it's a mostly straightforward and natural wartime drama — so I suspected that it would be more in line with my own preferences. It's a beautiful and moving little experience, but it seems caught awkwardly between the simple tone of traditionally child-oriented animation and the complexities raised by its very mature subject matter.

Based on the semi-autobiographical short story by Akiyuki Nosaka, Grave of the Fireflies tells the simple and sad story of Seita (Tsutomu Tatsumi) and Setsuko (Ayano Shiraishi), a ninth grade boy and his four-year-old sister, who are left to fend for themselves in World War II Japan after their mother dies in an Allied bombing raid. Takahata finds an elegant balance between the lyricism of childhood and the brutal reality of war, but even though the movie is effective at what it does, I found myself constantly wanting something more from what is ultimately a pretty slight film.

Takahata doesn't seem to bring any deeper perspective to Grave of the Fireflies than that provided by the two young main characters. Everything is on the very well-drawn surface — the kind of storytelling you would expect from anime intended for children, which Grave of the Fireflies, with its frank, upsetting imagery, shouldn't be. War is a difficult subject to consider seriously, and Takahata is only interested in the easiest of ideas, which left me with the sense that he short-changed himself. Grave of the Fireflies is a heartfelt glimpse at one of the many human costs of war, but has no larger point on its mind about the inevitable tragedy of children exposed to war. I wondered at the end if all I was supposed to take away was a reductive "How sad," when there seemed to be potential to go much further.

I suppose it could be argued that Takahata is playing a meta-advocate, asking us to consider the dichotomy between our reticence to let children watch a movie about the violent cost of war while still perpetuating wars in which they may face the same or worse horrors in real life, but that's smart-assed juvenile rhetoric and demeans the pure sentiment on display (and speaks more about our need to fill the absence of meaning in his movie with provocative questions that don't really exist in it). I don't think there's a satisfying answer to the paradoxical clash of the content and style in Grave of the Fireflies except that anime, for all its aspirations toward a more serious artistic purpose, is still locked in the mindset of kids' programming.

Taken for what it is, Grave of the Fireflies is delicate and often effective, with some stunning imagery that is both gorgeous and too on-the-nose. At the end, Takahata trods all over his previously effective minimalism with a clumsy series of "memories" aimed at unnecessarily belaboring its facile point, betraying himself once and for all as a far more sophisticated artist than he is a storyteller, and I'd love to see another of his movies when he has reconciled that disparity.

PopGap #09: Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Trailer for Grave of the Fireflies (1988)