Grave of the Fireflies - The Live-Action Movies
Akiyuki Nosaka's war novel Grave of the Fireflies is one of Japan's best-known confessionals about the Second World War. The semi-autobiographical account of a young man who suffers the firebombing campaigns with his family, including his five-year-old sister, was peerlessly adapted to the screen by Isao Takahata in 1988 as his first Studio Ghibli production. It has since become his most widely-known film around the world, especially among those who would never imagine the idea of a haunting character drama as an animation.
Most interestingly, Hotaru no Haka has since spawned not one, but two live-action movies. The first, a 2005 made-for-tv movie, drew some attention and curiosity around the world. The whole exercise seemed more of a novelty than anything, and it seemed to disappear as quickly as it appeared, at least from my side of the ocean. I've never found much of an online presense since then, which is a bit frustrating. But I don't have any interest in importing the DVD or tracking down video files online. What would be the point?
I'm not quite sure why a live-action Grave of the Fireflies was made. In the West, animation used for serious melodrama remains a mystery, a curiosity that draws puzzled looks. "Why was this even animated? Couldn't it have been made with live actors?" was the common refrain from fans and critics alike. But Japan knows better. They've grown up watching Takahata dramas ever since Heidi, and his filmmaking revolution brought a new vocabulary to anime that is still being felt (2008's The Piano Forest is nothing if not a tribute to Takahata).
So I have to admit I'm a bit curious as to why this was done. Perhaps the original novel still holds sway, or perhaps it has become a metaphor for Japan itself, although that would certainly betray a degree of historical revisionism. Then again, Imperial Japan's role in WWII has been somewhat whitewashed, to the frustration of their Asian neighbors. Thank goodness they are a pacifist nation.
Or perhaps it's simpler than that. Perhaps Takahata's Ghibli movie has become the flashpoint, the defining version. It's pretty obvious that the 2005 tv-movie tries to recreate the film, using the same costume designs and the same iconic shots. I've seen clips that were posted to YouTube, and, frankly, I was not impressed. It felt too clean, too nice, a little sterile. What parts I saw simply lacked Takahata's grim vision, or Yoshifumi Kondo's gritty art style.
What would be the point? I don't think the 2005 production could answer that question, and so it disappeared. Now I discover that a second film was released, this time to theaters, in 2008.
I wish I could say something about this, but I should at least track down the trailer before making any judgements. I will say this much: the poster looks promising. It's darker, grittier, closer to Takahata's vision. But there's the problem, again, isn't it? Isn't this just the latest attempt to copy someone else's work?
Perhaps Ghibli's version is too iconic to allow for any other versions. How could you adapt the novel without incorporating Takahata's icons and themes? His symbolic images are perfect. His movie could work as a silent film, and I think this is the source of Fireflies' universal appeal. We can understand this movie, even if the deeper complexities are lost to many foreigners. I don't know how you could tell this story in a different way, without becoming trapped in that heavy shadow.
I remember Roger Ebert's assertion that Grave of the Fireflies could never work as a live movie. Is that really so? Could this story ever be told as live-action? Or is animation the one place where it truly shines? And if animation wins out, what does that say for the cinema? If we ever contemplated this seriously enough, we would realize then that Takahata had achieved his greatest victory - the true revolution of animation, the triumph of the painters.