January 20, 2003 (with later revisions)
When the American movie-going public is constantly being fed junk food, it ruins their sensibilities. They don't trust their better instincts. Whenever I tell anyone who will listen that Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies is just about the greatest animated picture ever made, I'm greeted with strange looks. Nobody really believes that. American animation mostly relies upon formulaic pastry ala Disney, Dreamworks, and television. But Fireflies is far different; a transcendent masterpiece in its own right.
It's hard to get someone fired up about a picture that's so hard for Westerners to define. At the core, Grave of the Fireflies is a movie about two children who are bombed out of their home during World War II. Not exactly the way to reach someone who just dumped Shrek in front of their kids.
Fireflies is certainly one of the more serious Studio Ghibli titles, and one can't imagine any other studio that would produce this movie and My Neighbor Totoro at the same time. The two are nearly polar opposites (and shared a double bill for its Japenese premier), but its that creative diversity that has made Ghibli the best movie studio in the world.
The story is based on a bestselling novel by Akiyuki Nosaka. A survivor of the firebombing of Kobe in World War II, Nosaka battled starvation and actually lost his younger sister to malnutrition. Haunted for years by the experience, driven by the guilt of his sister's death, he wrote the book in hopes of silencing the ghosts surrounding him.
Like the book, the movie focuses almost exclusively on two children who become casualties in the Kobe bombing. All throughout, there is an encroaching sense of isolation. Seita and Setsuko lose their home, then lose their mother. They travel to the home of a distant aunt, who turns out to be distant in more ways than one. Increasingly frustrated, the aunt coldly discards the children; they lose their surrogate home and turn to a hillside bomb shelter. The surrounding adults, the farmers and the doctors and the officers, are either unable or unwilling to notice the orphaned two. The world itself seems to be collapsing around them.
Grave of the Fireflies is such an emotional experience that it's difficult, nearly impossible for many, to make it through in one sitting. Take one pivotal scene, for instance. The children's aunt is persuading Seita to give up his mother's garments so they can be sold. Setsuko awakens to see her aunt taking the clothes, and starts screaming; she comes completely undone. Seita is struggling to hold her back and he's coming undone. The kicker is that the girl doesn't yet know her mother died. All the while, Seita's ghost is watching (as he silently narrates), and he's coming undone; he can't bear to hear his sister's cries.
The first time I watched Fireflies, I was so overcome at this point in the story that I had to turn the videotape off. I couldn't return until the next evening, because it's so hard to watch. Even now, several years and several vewings later, its suffering and peacefullness remain a deeply touching experience.
When speaking about this film, Takahata and Nosaka confess that this story is better suited for animation, and they may be right. Perhaps this simply couldn't work with live actors. We would be too self-conscious of the sight of a real 4-year-old suffering; it would either look overly maudlin or hokey. But when animated, we more readily accept what Takahata shows us. It's realistic, but in the sense that Van Gogh and Coltrane is real. With its warm humanity, you feel emotions pulled out of you that you never knew you had.
Fireflies is equally full of moments of serene beauty, scenes of peaceful vitality. Visually, this is a beautiful movie. Everything is drawn in lush, vivid watercolors; the greens and blues of the lake, the saturated reds of a devastated Kobe, even the smoke from the bombers looks poetic. A bucket, a mop, a well - the film is littered with these snapshots of daily details. These transitory pillow shots are straight out of Yasujiro Ozu's movies (with a couple nods to Ray's Apu Trilogy), and it's these naturalist moments that stay with me the most.
This style of filmmaking is almost unheard of in animation. In the film's signature moment, the two children fill their cave with fireflies from the lake. The look on their faces is almost rapturous joy. The fireflies are gathered, they fly around the cave. It's an almost spiritual moment; the fireflies dance and glow, then slowly dim and fade by dawn. In the morning, the little girl buries them, and imagines her own mother's death.
You can't imagine any director pulling that off in America without mangling it a dozen different ways. But after watching, how can you imagine anyone not making films like this? How can one settle for the same routine again? By the time the final credits roll, you become convinced that Takahata is a genius and revolutionary; his other masterpieces such as Omohide Poro Poro and Anne of Green Gables cement that belief.
It may take another decade or two for the masses in America to realize this, and that may not happen until some brave filmmakers finally try to create neo-realist animation here. The prohibitive costs of creating animated films and the corporate mindset of Hollywood guarantee that this won't happen anytime soon. That needs to change, because we deserve scores of movies influenced by Takahata and Grave of the Fireflies.