In Miyazaki World, Susan Napier argues Japan’s traumatic national experiences during WWII, especially the incendiary bombings, was a formative influence of Hayao Miyazaki’s work. Clearly, this was also true for his Studio Ghibli colleague Isao Takahata. In fact, the war hit much closer to home for Takahata, who fled a bombing raid over Okayama in his bare feet. It was an experience that directly informs his great 1988 masterwork, Grave of the Fireflies (trailer here), which opens this Friday at the Quad.
14-year-old-ish Seita was supposed to take his five-year-old sister Setsuko to meet their mother in the bomb shelter. Ironically, they survived because he delayed too long and did not make it to the ill-fated bunker in time. However, it is questionable whether this can be described as good fortune. Instead, Seita will be forced to fend for himself and his sister in an increasingly callous and chaotic world.
For a while, the siblings find refuge with an aunt they hardly know, but her cold, mercenary reserve soon turns into overt hostility. It quickly becomes clear that brother and sister will have to survive the war and its aftermath on their own. Sadly, the in media res prologue does not give viewers cause for optimism on that score.
Takahata’s adaptation of Akiyuki Nosaka’s autobiographical novella has a well-deserved reputation as the most emotionally devastating animated film maybe ever. Basically, it is like spreading the intensity and sorrow of Bambi’s mother’s death over an entire feature. Even if you have a heart of stone, you will feel for the two youngsters and be moved by their love for each other. In all honesty, it is hard to find any aspect of Grave that could be considered a defense or white-washing of the Imperial military regime, but the only horrors of war depicted are those suffered by Japan. As a result, the film has sometimes stirred controversy in countries formerly occupied by Japan, where references to the war invariably provoke vehement responses. Yet, it is hard to conceive of a film less likely to inspire jingoistic militarism.
Even though she is animated, Setsuko is such a believable five-year-old, it is deeply distressing to watch her when the film reaches the third act. At times, Seita approaches martyr-like levels of devotion to Setsuko, but Takahata gives him just enough flaws and annoying teenager moments to keep him human. Regardless, Takahata is definitely going for emotional extremes rather than psychological subtleties.
The animation is consistently an unusually expressive means to that end. We always understand what the two main characters feel, quite acutely. Yet, some of the backdrops are quite beautiful and strikingly cinematic. This is truly a classic example of Studio Ghibli’s uncompromising production standards.
Grave is the sort of film that transcends labels. It is not just an important animated film. It is a significant work of cinema, of any genre or format. It is Takahata’s career-defining masterpiece—or at least it was until he finally finished The Tale of Princess Kaguya. Very highly recommended, Grave of the Fireflies opens this Friday (1/4) in New York, at the Quad Cinema.