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Welcome to the month of February fellow readers. As a longtime fan of all things Studio Ghibli, I decided we would take a look at one of Isao Takahata’s works. Take out your kleenex, this week on Anime Monday we’ll be discussing Grave of the Fireflies.
Set in Japan during World War II, Grave of the Fireflies follows the misfortunes of Seita and Setsuko that ultimately lead to their death. These aren’t spoilers; they’re a given. Yup, it’s that type of movie. Seita narrates his own death at the start of the film. He’s dressed in tatters, alone at a train station. Long, dark shadows fill the spaces between Seita and the passengers who show dismay at the sight of all the homeless children. His death is mourned by no one in particular, but we the viewers at least get to see Seita reunited with his young sister in a red-hued afterlife that is lit up by fireflies. It’s an incredibly bleak moment that sets the tone for the remainder of the film. In his afterlife, we see Seita and Setsuko transformed back to their former selves with clean, proper clothing. This visual cue transports us back in time at the start of it all.
Dressed in the same attire, Seita is seen scuttling through his home as he prepares to leave it for the safety of a bomb shelter. His mother appears to announce she’s going to get a head start. Seita stops her to make sure she has her heart medication. They reassure each other of their reunion at the shelter. With organized frenzy, he buries sundries in a pit for safekeeping, puts on his shoes, gathers up his rucksack, and seems ready to leave with his sister. When, suddenly, he remembers his dad’s photograph. He yanks it out of it’s frame. Finally, he straps his sister to his back and is set to go, but is held up once more when Setsuko cries out for her doll. Back he goes. It’s a stressful scene filled with mundane moments with which anyone who’s ever had to make a big move or change can relate. You’ve prepped indefinitely, you’ve done everything that needed doing, and even then there’s that nagging sensation that you’re forgetting something. In reality, the only thing left is to walk out that door, but you’re hesitant, scared, and any reason to linger is a cherished moment. These beautiful, insignificant moments are what the film captures best.
Confronted with evermore insurmountable obstacles, Seita and Setsuko are constantly grabbing at some sort of happiness. True stability is hard to come by, but that doesn’t mean they can’t find pleasure in simple banalities. You’ll find yourself smiling along with Setsuko at the sight of a tin box of fruit candies. And, yes, some might find the subject matter a bit manipulative and cloy. Nevertheless, the struggles of Seita and Setsuko are handled with earnestness and delicate care that elevate this above other war-time movie attempts. A lot of the plot is predictable, but it is in the service of character development and thematic points.
It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to resist the charms of Grave of the Fireflies. The animators create beautiful, ethereal moments through shadows and lighting. The subject matter is handled with enough taste to be suitable for a younger audience but refrains from dumbing down the severity of war and death. Takahata’s film might leave you feeling a bit down in the dumps, but you won’t regret a moment of it, no matter how mundane.