Children Of War: Isao Takahata’s Grave Of The Fireflies (1988) – Blu-ray review
Unstinting in its bleakness but also leavened by its genuinely childlike approach to depicting the horrors of war, this highlights the richness of animation’s canvas.
Grave Of The Fireflies
(Isao Takahata, 1988)
Should anybody ever try to convince you that animation is a childish medium, show ’em Grave Of The Fireflies – as stark, uncompromising and sober a vision as cinema has produced. It’s a film that could only have been made in a country which, like Japan, values animation as an art form and a legitimate choice over live-action.
Although Akiyuki Nosaka’s source novel about two children surviving the rigours of WWII has since been filmed twice more, It’s hard to imagine what a live-action version of this would look like. So much of Grave’s mood is reliant on the subtlety with which it moves from joy to trauma and back again, a seamless representation of children’s mercurial mood. With sets and actors, the gears would surely grind too overtly, the emotional shifts too blunt and straining for our sympathy. The sequences of emaciation and hideous sores would be obviously prosthetic and easy to dismiss as illusion… but when everything is of the same illusion, it becomes more real. It would be, in essence, the difference between pathos and bathos.
But Takahata is able to unify these disparate elements, creating a story whose shocks are all the more devastating because of their juxtaposition with real warmth. Nightmarish visions of a near-dead mother, bandaged head to foot but blood seeping through the cloth, are harrowing…. but Takahata knows that wartime is also an adventure, and Seita and Setsuko’s retreat into a new, self-created world in a disused air raid shelter, has the charm of play-acting and imagination even though we know it’s in deadly earnest.
Visually, the film is never more beautiful than when it’s most violent, an assault of deepest ochre from American bombers that bleeds effortlessly into the soothing coronas of the titular fireflies. The latter are at once ironic markers and hopeful symbols, intertwined light and death – and one of the most resonant metaphors in cinema.
Nonetheless, this isn’t a film to overdo animation’s capabilities; Takahata reins in imagination to create something neo-realist. The film couldn’t be simpler, as the children are buffeted by the remorselessness of war just as the screen is flecked with relentless ash – an effect all the stronger because we know each fragment has been painstakingly hand-drawn.
Yet there’s complexity, too: these kids have at least one get-out clause that could prevent the depths of their poverty, and there’s the sense that many of their problems are created by the hermetic cocoon, borne of pride and guilt and fierce devotion, that Setsuko seals around him and his sister. But is that so hard to comprehend given the institutional callousness of a world where the adults are hard and petty in holding on to their own share of food? There are few more affecting sounds in cinema than the plaintive cries of Ayano Shiraishi, the young actress who plays Setsuko.