I knew it was about war orphans, and I knew it was going to be sad, but that didn’t stop me from tearing up at the end. And being sad the whole way through.
Grave of the Fireflies (directed by Isao Takahata) without any doubt is a beautiful movie. The animation, the scenery, the music, the everything–it was all amazingly, hauntingly beautiful.
The movie begins with the ending, a dirty and malnourished boy lying in the subway station, weak and helpless. He dies, among the many others in that station alone, and his spirit, surrounded by a red hue, begins to narrate a flashback to when he was alive. Grave of the Fireflies takes place during the air raids in Japan during World War II, revealing the tragic story of Seita (voiced by Tsutomu Tatsumi) and his younger sister, Setsuko (voiced by Ayano Shiraishi), and their struggle for survival after they lose their mother in an air raid.
The story is tragic and moving. One of the most important aspects of the movie I think may be how sad the happy scenes were. We are shown many shots of Seita and Setsuko being happy as they play with fireflies and eat fruit candy drops.
These scenes are supposed to show happiness, but I only felt sadness. I felt sad that this happiness was only temporary. I felt sad that their lives would never work out the way it should for children. I was sad that they had to go through the horrors of war. I was sad for them.
This is one of the few movies where I really, really felt for the characters. When Seita had to steal from others for his sick sister, when Setsuko made “rice balls” out of mud to give to Seita, I almost felt the sadness physically.
And one of the most powerful motifs was the fruit candy drops. This candy was what gave Setsuko temporary happiness. To me, it symbolized hope. As long as there was a sweetness in life, things could get better. When they had fruit drops, things got a little better already. And if that can get better, then the bigger things can get better. But we all know that it doesn’t happen.
One of my favorite aspects was Seita and Setsuko’s spirits watching the flashback. They are shown as illuminated in a red light.
The spirits simply watch. Seita gives very brief narrations, but most of the time, he watches, holding Setsuko’s hand. To be honest, I’m not sure what exactly about this was so moving to me, but it quickly became my favorite part. It just added so much more to the movie.
I was glad that it was animation. It was realistic, but at the same time, if it were too realistic, say, as a live-action film, I think the impact wouldn’t have been as huge. Watching it animation, you didn’t need to focus on special effects, make-up, facial acting. With animation, you only needed to focus on the plot, the characters, the story of these characters and their lives.
Conclusion: A powerful, moving movie about two World War II orphans struggling to survive on their own, Takahata tugs at the audience with beautiful animation detailing the tragic story of Seita and Setsuko, leaving a powerful impression. Bonus points because it made me so much more sad than almost anything else I’ve watched. And more bonus points for becoming my favorite Studio Ghibli film. 9.8/10.