A devastating meditation on the human cost of war, this animated tale follows Seita (Tsutomu Tatsumi), a teenager charged with the care of his younger sister, Setsuko (Ayano Shiraishi), after an American firebombing during World War II separates the two children from their parents. Their tale of survival is as heartbreaking as it is true to life. The siblings rely completely on each other and struggle against all odds to stay together and stay alive.
In many ways, GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES feels like a spiritual cousin to another animated feature, WHEN THE WIND BLOWS, which I wrote about for this site back in early 2011. GotF was made several years after WtWB, but is set many years earlier. Both films deal with a similar premise: two close family members try to survive through a devastating period of war, and both groups are equally naïve. Whereas WtWB deals with an elderly couple trying to revive the old Dunkirk spirit and survive a nuclear holocaust despite being equipped with little more than a few bits of wood, some mattresses, several paper bags that their potatoes arrived in, and endless cups of tea and optimism (“It was nice in the war, really,” Hilda tells her husband as they reminisce about the World War II), GotF presents us with a different kind of innocence. Based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, it’s this innocence which ultimately makes the story of 14 year-old Seita and his 4 year-old sister Setsuko so difficult to watch.
When you consider GotF against the rest of Studio Ghibli’s generally family friendly output (Howl’s Moving Castle, Spirited Away, Ponyo etc.), it seems to stand apart. It shares the studio’s extraordinary design and animation style (realistic, despite the exaggerated features of the characters) and yet this enhances the telling of such a dark and serious story and doesn’t detract. As Roger Ebert’s 2000 review says, Yes, it’s a cartoon, and the kids have eyes like saucers, but it belongs on any list of the greatest war films ever made. It’s a harrowing story which benefits from its presentation. It makes Seita and Setsuko’s tragic tale easier to watch, but doesn’t diminish the impact of their story in the slightest.
I’ve lost count of the number of conversations I’ve had with people about whether or not horror is a genre. My stance is that it isn’t. To me, horror is more a feeling, an emotion found within a story rather than a particular ‘type’ of book or film. To explain further, I think if you’re watching a Western, you’re pretty much certain to see sheriffs, cowboys and gunfights etc. Horror, though, can be about anything at any time. GotF is a case in point. It’s a cartoon which can be watched by any age. It also just happens to be one of the most moving and downright horrific films I’ve seen.
If you haven’t guessed already, I strongly recommend you find time to watch GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES. It’s a hugely important film. If you can take it, watch it in a double-bill with WHEN THE WIND BLOWS, and you’ll be left in absolutely no doubt as to the human tragedy of war.