Don't you just hate spoilers? I do, too. That's why I always try to include warnings. However, I sometimes ramble a bit too much here or there and maybe a few (or many) key plot points slip without me giving proper notice. So I'd like to include a blanket spoiler warning for the weary internet travelers of the world: Here There Be Spoilers. You've been warned.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no Haka)

"September 21, 1945. That was the night I died."

In the opening moments of the movie we are shown a boy named Seita as he is starving to death in Sannomiya Station. His last moments alive are spent thinking about his dear sister younger Setsuka and the struggle he went through to help her survive. Then he dies and the movie jumps into flashback mode with Seita's spirit telling the story of what happened before he died. 

Based on the 1967 novel of the same name by author Nosaka Akiyuki and released in 1988, Grave of the Fireflies is about as depressing and bleak a movie there is. It is an unforgiving and unflinching look at a boy struggling to provide for his sister after losing everything in the aftermath of the incendiary bombs being dropped on Kobe in 1945 a few months before the end of World War II. 

With their mother mortally wounded and their father overseas (possibly dead), the two of them must make their own way through a world where everyone is coping with the effects of devastation. Many of them coping rather poorly by becoming cold and selfish and angry. These same folks will not take the time of day to help Seita or Setsuka. An aunt of theirs takes them in, but even she eventually pushes them out. And those that really do want to help them cannot because they are struggling themselves. This evenhandedness only contributes to the sense of tragedy. 

Food and shelter are the most valuable things left and it is up to Seita, only fourteen years old, to take care of his four year old sister. 

And things don't necessarily work out so well. 

Honestly, there isn't a bad thing I can say about this movie. Perhaps the lack of mentioning Japan's role in the war as being one of the bad guys could be considered a "flaw," but I think it'd be an egregious offense to this movie and its subject matter. This isn't a war movie as much as it really is a movie about survival and family and growing up in a harsh world. These things are universal, stretching beyond the boundaries of time and culture, and anyone can watch this movie and feel for the suffering of the two main characters. This film is a classic. 

The now legendary Studio Ghibli (co-founded by Miyazaki Hayao and the director of this film Takahata Isao) has always produced some great films including Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle, and My Neighbor Totoro, but Grave of the Fireflies is something else. I mean, Spirited Away is one of my favorite films of all time, but Grave of the Fireflies is so very different in terms of subject matter. It is tough to compare a tragic survival movie with a fantastical slice of life story especially when the survival movie is largely rooted in the real world and real life. The book it is based on is a semi-autobiographical one and based on many of Akiyuki's life experiences. I really would like to find an English version of it. 

This movie is a tough watch. Rewarding, but tough. It doesn't have an especially fast pace (it moves slowly at its own pace like so many other movies about growing up) or a bunch of fight scenes between soldiers (soldiers are rarely seen in this movie). Mostly we just see bombs getting dropped on ordinary people who just happen to be living in the wrong place at the wrong time. Seita and Setsuka being just two of the many. 

Highly recommended. 

Bring your tissues, too. It will move you. 

P.S. - I watched the subtitled version with the Japanese audio. There are two different English dub tracks on my blu-ray, but I don't have it in me to watch the movie two more times to do a comparison between the three audio tracks. The Japanese cast is excellent in its own right, though. I don't imagine watching it in English could do it justice. The voice of Setsuka is especially one I don't think could be done any better. Her character is the heart of this movie. Shiraishi Ayano, in her only voice acting performance that I know of, was fantastic. 

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