"September 21, 1945... that was the night I died."
Grave of the Fireflies
Released: April 1988
Written by Akiyuki Nosaka and Isao Takahata
Directed by Isao Takahata
The opening scene sets the tone when a young boy dies an ignominious death in a train station and we watch his spirit join his sister's on a near by bench. Grave of the Fireflies is an attempt at conveying the desperation and grief of civilians suffering the effects of a horrific war.
Studio Ghibli is known for it's whimsical animated stories but there is no whimsy here. The movie is filled with the dark grueling images of the devastation wrought on Japanese cities by the firebombing raids of the United States Air Corp. The reduction of homes to ashes and the horrific death of the two main characters' mother from burns.
For the next hour and a half we get to watch as Seita, a boy aged around 15, and Setsuku, his sister who seems to be 4 or 5 years old, struggle to survive in the bleak environment of war time Japan. As the opening has already told us, it is a struggle doomed to failure.
However, the characters are such that I was rooting for them anyway even though I knew how it would all end.
I was really moved by the slow slide of Seita. How he strives to maintain a cheerful outlook for his sisters sake but all the while losing his own hope and really his own grip on sanity punctuated by him laughing like a mad man as he returns from a scrounging expedition in a thunderstorm.
The frustration and anger at being utterly helpless to avert the inevitable Seita feels was painful to me. It made for an uncomfortable viewing experience. I wanted the movie to end much sooner than it did but like Seita I had no choice but to endure it.
The fireflies serve as a metaphor for the short length of our innocence, our dreams, and ultimately our lives.