In recent years, the Japanese art of animation (known as anime) has made inroads into the American market along two paths. Its highly-stylized action movies have created their own market as well as their own premium cable channel, the Anime Network. Movie auteur Quentin Tarantino used anime for the backstory of O-ren Ishii, the Japanese-American hit woman played by Lucy Liu in Kill Bill Part 1. On the other path, the beautiful movies of Hayao Miyazaki have been release here in the US. These included Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke, and Ponyo.
One of the greatest animated movies ever made, though, can only be seen on DVD, since it dates from 1988. While it keeps the anime form and deals with a boy and his younger sister, it transcends the form to become a haunting masterpiece. Once you see it, you will never forget it.
Grave of the Fireflies (Original title: Hotaru no haka) was directed by Isao Takahata, and was based on a novel by Akiyuki Nosaka. It dealt with Japan during the final months of World War II and was based on survivors’ accounts as well as the author’s experiences.
In the late spring of 1945, Seita, a boy of around 13, is living with his much younger sister Setsuko and their mother in one of Japan’s smaller cities. Their father is a captain in the Imperial Navy and is away with the fleet. They haven’t heard from him in a while. As flights of B-29 bombers approach the city, Seita is burying food and valuables to protect them. He sends his mother off to the shelter while he finishes, then he grabs Setsuko and follows.
The B-29s drop incendiaries on the mostly wooden buildings. (The attack is similar to the firebombing suffered by Kobe during the war.) Seita can’t make it to the shelter but he finds a safe place for the two of them by an irrigation canal. When they emerge after the attack, the city has been utterly devastated by the firestorm the bombers unleashed. They make their way to a school building that has survived and is being used as a hospital. There Seita discovers his mother was trapped in the flames and was horribly burned. She dies from the injuries, but Seita can’t bring himself to tell Setsuko. Instead he tries to keep his sister’s spirits high.
The children go to live with an aunt nearby. At first the aunt is welcoming, especially when Seita returns to their burned-out home and gathers the buried supplies. Seita does his best to keep Setsuko happy. He takes her on a trip to the ocean, which unleashes strong memories for Seita of happier times with his family. The delight of the day, though, is marred by another air raid.
As time goes on, the aunt and her family turn bitter and resentful toward the children. It becomes so bad, the children leave. They create their own “home” in an abandoned mine beside a pond. There is a magical night where they light the cave with captured fireflies. In the morning, though, the fireflies have died. Setsuko gathers them and buries them outside the cave. The move has put the children outside the rationing system. Seita does everything he can do to gather food for himself and Setsuko, but it is hard to find anything available, and Setsuko is getting sick.
The movie blends scenes of the wonder of childhood and metaphysical beauty with the cataclysmic horror of war inflicted on noncombatants. The images are extremely detailed, down to the rivet lines on the silver B-29s and the rubble of the destroyed town. While regular anime comes across as versions of Die Hard or The Matrix, this movie is closer to Schindler’s List or Life is Beautiful.
When it was first released, it was on a double feature with My Neighbor Totoro, a fantasy adventure along the lines of Ponyo. Both are excellent movies, but much of the audience left after Totoro, not wanting to see the serious Fireflies after the lighter movie. As time went on, though, Fireflies was discovered by an audience who appreciated it. Roger Ebert included it on his list of all-time great movies, calling it one of the best war movies ever made. The movie rating site Rotten Tomatoes has Fireflies at 96% Fresh, an extremely high rating.
Anyone who loves and appreciates the cinema should see this move, to experience its powerful images and its heartrending story. Have a box of Kleenex by your chair.