AKA: Hotaru no Haka
Genre: Tragedy/War Drama
Year Released: 1988
Running Time: 89 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: TV-PG
Related Films/Series: Grave of the Fireflies (2005 live-action remake), Grave of the Fireflies (2008 live-action remake)
For Fans Of: Barefoot Gen, Mother of Mine, Before Your Eyes, Life is Beautiful, Who’s Left Behind?, In This Corner of the World
-The Sentai Filmworks DVD was used for this review. I’ve seen previous releases such as ADV Film’s release and Central Park Media’s release which was my first exposure to this film.
-The Japanese language track was used for this review, but I’ve also seen the original English dub from Central Park Media. The Sentai Filmworks Blu-Ray release has a new dub using Sentai Filmworks-based voice actors.
-This review was coincidentally written days prior to Isao Takahata’s death. RIP, Takahata-San.
-Grave of the Fireflies was the only Ghibli film never to have been licensed by Disney in North America until From Up On Poppy Hill was given distribution outside of Japan. UPDATE: GKIDS now has the rights to this film which makes The Wind Rises the only Ghibli film still retained by Disney in North America after GKIDS acquired the license to Takahata’s 1988 film.
-Grave of the Fireflies was originally released as a double feature alongside My Neighbor Totoro during its first run in Japanese theaters. Boy, was it smart for having Totoro playing AFTER Grave of the Fireflies because people would need some Zoloft or Zanax if the order was the other way around.
-According to animator Yasuo Otsuka (who’s also worked with Studio Ghibli), director Isao Takahata was a huge influence on Hayao Miyazaki himself. He claims that if it weren’t for Takahata, the most famous anime creator alive would only be interested in comic books and have no sense of social responsibility.
-Grave of the Fireflies is Isao Takahata’s Studio Ghibli debut, but he’s worked on several other projects as a director prior to the existence of that well-renowned studio. He’s directed Panda Go Panda!, Gauche the Cellist, the anime adaptation of Anne of Green Gables (which predates the 80s version that everybody knows, I might add), and even the original Lupin III TV series.
-Grave of the Fireflies was based on a story by Akiyuki Nosaka who based the tale on his real-life experiences living in Kobe, Japan where it was firebombed during World War II.
-I can’t believe I’m going to talk about pro wrestling for a fun fact involving this movie, but there’s a wrestler named Jason Kincaid (best known for his work in Evolve) who has a finishing move that’s named after this Ghibli movie. Don’t believe me?
I get to review yet another Studio Ghibli film and it’s another one directed by Isao Takahata. I’ve felt that Takahata played second banana to Hayao Miyazaki so much. That’s not a knock against Miyazaki as a director or animator, so don’t misconstrue me. I’ve noticed that he never gets as much attention as Ghibli’s co-founder, and I think one can make a legitimate argument that he’s one of the most underrated directors in anime let alone the field of animation. It does feel strange since many of his works have received critical acclaim.
Now, I tend to disagree with so much fluff as reviewers kiss the keisters of certain movies, but if there’s any movie from that studio that deserved critical acclaim despite not getting as much mainstream exposure as Spirited Away, Ponyo, or Princess Mononoke, it’s this one.
Grave of the Fireflies takes place from the perspective of the spirit of a dead teenage boy named Seita. The story itself takes place in 1940s Kobe, Japan. The country is dealing with the ramifications of World War II. Food is rationed, people are poor, and air raid alarms go off on a daily basis. On one fateful day, Seita’s family with his mom and his four-year-old sister Setsuko are forced to evacuate their home as American bomber jets set Kobe ablaze. The city itself is scorched, houses are destroyed, and several people die including Seita and Setsuko’s mom. They are forced to live with their aunt despite her being very cold to them and these children from the firestorm have to survive war-torn Japan.
Even non-anime fans know what Ghibli is and they know they have a good reputation for their good animation style. While later Ghibli films have better animation which I won’t argue against anyone, the animation quality has held up very well. This anime film has a surprising amount of fluidity and the hand-drawn animation is brutal, yet beautiful in its artistic merit. The tactile feeling felt like I was transported to 40s Japan with the historical aspects and also the horrific aspects as in a matter of minutes, a blue sky can turn black from the bombs and smoke. I remember seeing Grave of the Fireflies a long time ago. For some odd reason, I thought it was animated sometime in the early or mid-90s, but I was shocked to find out years later that it was animated in 1988. Think about it. This year would be its 30th anniversary. There’s no CGI or flashiness to this anime, and it sure doesn’t need it. Grave of the Fireflies came out the same year as Oliver and Company and The Land Before Time, yet this then-newer Japanese animation company made a movie that has aged much less than those films. Much like how I felt about The Secret of Kells despite some of its flaws, I find it a bit funny how a little movie with nowhere near as much corporate funding looks better than mainstream animated films that came out the same year or close to the same time. You see, people can make awesome animated films without some crappy CGI that’s going to age or flashy colors to disguise how mediocre a film is.
Then, there’s the story and characters of Grave of the Fireflies.
Seita is a boy who had some optimism only for it to be chastened by this war-torn reality facing everyone in Japan. He wants him and his little sister to live despite the situations that they’re in, but he can be a bit prideful and eventually resorts to stealing sometimes just to make sure they can eat. Setsuko is a little girl who is very inquisitive, but she’s way too young to fully grasp the gravitas of the hell around her. She also has to be one of the most realistically written children in animation history as she has tantrums for not seeing her dead mom or even wanting some sashimi sushi even though there wouldn’t be any available. There’s the aunt who is just way too cold for her own good. When the viewer first sees her, they think she’ll be a decent person, but that becomes false later on. She bashes Seita and Setsuko for not working hard enough, yet she acts so selfishly in everything else by taking the sibling’s rations. Her mildly inconvenienced response to Seita and Setsuko leaving her house after they’re fed up with her negative attitude just made me furious at her. Even Lady Tremaine from Cinderella had more tact than the Aunt with all of her repulsive apathy for letting her own nephew and niece become homeless. The characters are so believable in many ways and I have to give props to everyone involved in the writing and acting process.
One thing that makes Grave of the Fireflies really work is the depiction of war without being a propaganda piece. Anyone could make the firebombing scene fuel for some all-out combat film or something obviously anti-American. Yes, American planes did bomb Kobe during the war (and that’s not counting the atomic bombs later on in Hiroshima and Nagasaki), but I loved how they were a faceless force that prevents any demonizing and it highlights how they aren’t the main threat despite the damage they do. If anything, most of the people who antagonize Seita and Setsuko are other Japanese people. It’s that kind of subtlety that works on so many levels and it’s just great writing in general. The viewer doesn’t see the war itself, but the aftereffects and implications on how people deal with it when they aren’t on the battlefield. The creators have denied Grave of the Fireflies being an anti-war film, but I seriously dare anyone to tell me that World War II was cool after watching this animated feature. That’s something I can rarely say when it comes to movies or series using war as a subject. Francois Truffaut, THIS is how you portray a horrific subject like war without making it look awesome. Grave of the Fireflies is living proof of a movie destroying the Truffaut Effect (or Do Not Do This Cool Thing for those of you that obsess over TV Tropes) in such a splendid, yet very depressing way.
Grave of the Fireflies does have a few issues. Let’s start with the most obvious. This is a very depressing movie. I know there will be some people that wouldn’t even last halfway through the film assuming they can stomach seeing the iconic scene with Seita and Setsuko’s mother being disfigured and bandaged after the fires. If you cried during the death scenes of Bambi’s mom, Little Foot’s mom from The Land Before Time, or a certain Americanized unintentionally loathsome clone of Kimba’s dead father Caesar (you know who I’m talking about), then this entire movie will kill you to death with its tragic moments and I dare say had way more emotional gravity than any of those aforementioned movies combined (fight me!). Shoot, I’m man enough to admit that I cried watching Grave of the Fireflies and I rarely ever cry during movies! Now, that I got that out of the way, let’s talk about some of the other issues at hand. I wasn’t aware of this, but the author of the original story claimed that the audience is supposed to blame Seita for everything, but that notion is flawed. If anyone was in Seita’s situation, they would make mistakes like him given their age and lack of knowledge about adult situations. That just made Seita unintentionally more sympathetic, and he wasn’t that selfish of a character, to begin with. Also, the last thing that I had a gripe with that is easily the worst thing about it is the Central Park Media English dub. That is easily one of the worst dubs I’ve heard in my life with terrible voice acting and the main characters don’t even sound like the right ages. A movie this amazing deserved so much better. Stick with the Japanese version, people.
Isao Takahata created something so meaningful with this WWII period piece. Grave of the Fireflies is one of the most powerful pieces of animation that is still effective to this day. The animation is older, but it has aged better than fine wine. The level of depth and storytelling surpasses both animated and live-action films tackling similar topics. The characterization is wondrous as everyone feels like a real person instead of just a 2D piece of celluloid. I also have to give kudos to composer Michio Mamiya for making some powerful music. He doesn’t get enough attention like Ghibli regular Joe Hisaishi, but it’s totally worth getting the soundtrack, too. Yes, this film is very depressing, but there’s a legitimate point to it instead of just some manufactured nihilism or something out of some sheltered suburban teen’s diary that’s been listening to too much metalcore or pop punk. Truth be told, I’d consider this film to be Ghibli’s best movie. Grave of the Fireflies is easily one of the best-animated films ever made, but I’d argue that this is one of the best films period. You owe it to yourself to watch this at least once. Just don’t forget to have a tissue box within reach when watching it.
Adjustable Point System:
Subtract 2-4 points if you can’t stand depressing films.
-The animation has aged very well
-Phenomenal characterization and storytelling
-Seita is more sympathetic than intended by the original author
-Can be way too depressing for a good portion of viewers
-Atrocious English dub from the Central Park Media production
Final Score: 10/10 points
Content Warning: This got a TV-PG rating in Sentai’s release of this film although I do have to laugh when it came to CPM giving it a 3+ rating. It’s going to be a hard PG. The language doesn’t go as far as “damn” and there is a family bathing scene with Seita and Setsuko, but that’s the least of your worries. Several people die onscreen including children and there’s the shot of the main character’s mother’s burned and disfigured face up close which will psychologically scar people who think they’re just watching another animated film. The bomber jets are nightmare fuel and the subtleties of war like destruction, death, starvation, and disease are shown.
All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Grave of the Fireflies is property of Akiyuki Nosaka, Studio Ghibli, and GKIDS. The DVD cover is from Amazon and is property of Sentai Filmworks.