Grave of the Fireflies review - The Rose - April 1992

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Grave of the Fireflies review - The Rose - April 1992

By Steven Feldman
Suggestions added from the advice of: Atsushi Fukumoto

I saw Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies in its entirety for the first time the other night and was surprised at both its similarities and dissimilarities with the works of Hayao Miyazaki. Unlike the anime of the latter, this film is realistic in a downbeat sense, with no overt comedic leavening, only bitter-sweet perks. The narrative, which lends itself well to character study, revolves almost exclusively around two characters, but strangely, there is no character development per se. My Neighbor Totoro has few characters and little character development, as well, so its pairing with "Fireflies" at Japanese theatrical screenings is not as surprising as many have thought. Both these films evoke key if not memorable times in the recent Japanese past. Distilled to the basics, it could be said that "Totoro" embodies the Japan many Japanese wish still was, whereas "Fireflies" embodies Japan at its nadir. And yet, "Fireflies" uses its pivotal series of events as a backdrop rather than a soapbox for platitudinous didacticism, and paradoxically, gathers greater power through this inherently evasive technique. It has often been remarked how the tragedy of a handful is more heartfelt than that of a multitude, and it is no less true, here.

The copy of Grave of the Fireflies I saw was in the original language and I don't know Japanese, so since there is little action and a great deal of dialogue, my judgment of this film on a narrative level is largely irrelevant. As far as I have been able to gather, the film's events take place during the end of Japan's involvement in World War II. [After writing this, I learned that the setting was Kobe in April, 1945, and that the A bombs which hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August were hundreds of kilometers away.] During the course of the film, the principle characters run for shelter from air raids some seven or eight times. At later points, it is revealed that both characters (a 16-year-old reserve soldier and his 6-year-old sister?) contracted radiation poisoning, which is represented by red blotches on the torso, but I didn't see where they got it from. There was no nuclear blast, no immediate reaction from eating or drinking contaminated food, nor the onslaught of sudden hair loss. [Again, after writing this, I learned that they died of malnutrition - not radiation - and that the red blotches were prickly heat.] Instead, we see how two people cope with major changes in their lives, both adverse and bitter-sweetly propitious. This brings us back to the "Totoro" comparison.

"Totoro's" tacit subtext is that of two children dealing with the possible terminal illness of a parent, yet this is obfuscated by the fantastic and nostalgic elements. In retrospect, one is tempted to ask why the various forest spirits revealed themselves to the two little girls. Did the series of fanciful events spark from the children's openess and naivete, or from a deep-seated need? The answer is both. What separates "Totoro" from "Fireflies" is its deus ex machina ending. If the Cat-bus hadn't helped Satsuki find Mei, Mei might very well have wound up like the characters in "Fireflies": hungry and lost.

If one were not very familiar with Japanese animation, it would be easy to mistake Grave of the Fireflies for a Miyazaki film. The characters have similarly-constructed faces and nearly all the imagery has the same smooth-edged look that is so rare in anime. That Miyazaki and Takahata have worked together on and off for over 25 years is no doubt a contributing factor, but both their styles are so dissimilar to the generic anime style (if there is such a thing), that one tends to think more so of 1940's animation in their context (Kiki's Delivery Service being the most obvious example). Unlike Miyazaki, Takahata's key animation is, upon closer examination, not as smooth as it looks and certainly not as dynamically arranged as that of the former. Nearly every scene in "Fireflies" is symmetrical, which gives the film a flat, even tone. I have seen only one other Takahata film, "Prince of the Sun" - which was designed and key animated by Miyazaki - so I really have no idea whether this stiffness of scene organization is on purpose, or else an inherent limitation of the director's style, but I think it is a little of both. Watching Grave of the Fireflies, I got the feeling that Takahata might be trying to evoke the same sort of domestic mundanity for which the live-action director Yasujiro Ozu was reknowned: the scenery arrangements were static, the dialogue plain, and the characters' reactions thoroughly unremarkable - almost as if the director was secretly filming a real-life situation from a hidden vantage point. Indeed, the frequent temporal shifts in this anime add to this sense of impromptu, almost ethnographic filmmaking. That said, I must add that it is a remarkable achievement to have imbued an animated film with a verisimilitude so close to reality. By this, I do not mean to give hyperbolic lip service as some have done with The Simpsons - for "Fireflies" is no mere allegory and there is nothing humorous about it - but to say that, with "Fireflies", one often becomes unaware that one is not watching a live-action movie, but a "cartoon." The same cannot be said for a Miyazaki film, and this is an important point.

Miyazaki is a great storyteller, but the enjoy-ability of a story is in no way affected by its inherent believability or realism. Contextual believability is often more important in tale-spinning, so a modest anime like Locke the Superman is in many ways more successful and enjoyable than an opulent bonanza like Akira. More than a few fledgling anime fans have wondered why anyone could possibly like something like Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro) or Kimagure Orange Road more than St. Seiya, Megazone 23 Part Two, or Bubblegum Crisis, but this has more to do with youthful hormones than careful examination. On the other hand, The Wings of Honneamise is internally consistent and largely true-to-life yet lacks not only the verve of a Miyazaki film, but the weight of Grave of the Fireflies. Why is is this so? I'm not certain, and yet, perhaps "Arion" and Time Stranger offer clues. "Arion" takes many of the gods of the Greek pantheon and puts them through changes Homer never intended, and yet, in of itself, this tale is breathtaking and exceptionally well balanced. Time Stranger is a time travel story that takes extreme liberties with historical motivations and yet, given the belief suspension required of the paradox of time travel, it acquits itself unusually well. Both these anime have verve, but neither are as weighty as Grave of the Fireflies. This brings us back to the idea of empathy with a few being more palpable than identification with a large statistic. "Arion" deals with an entire religion, virtually half its gods, and all its followers; Time Stranger concerns the eradication of an entire future civilization; "Honneamise" deals with two warring nations and a race to the moon; and "Fireflies", with ground-level subsistence during wartime. In ascending order, then, these anime deal with struggle on first a universal, then a personal order. Allegorical subtexts notwithstanding, personal travails make for better drama.

Another curious comparison to Grave of the Fireflies and My Neighbor Totoro would be to Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket. In this series-within-a-series, the viewer comes to identify with a small child named Alfred who unwittingly becomes a spy in service of the enemy. To him, soldiers are glamorous icons like rock stars or movie stars, and so acceptance - however superficial - by one of these provides a rapture and sense of belonging which is frightening in its ignorance. Eventually, this star-struck boy learns the truth and turns on his erstwhile hero, even as the latter redeems himself poignantly with a selfless act. On the one hand, this series is similar to The Wings of Honneamise in that one is always aware that the key character is only a cog in a larger design, yet on the other hand, Alfred is as emotionally starved as Mei is for her mother or the little girl in "Fireflies" is for her father and fading fatherland, because his father and school friends pay no attention to him.

Is Grave of the Fireflies, then, ultimately about the tribulations of isolated children? I think not. No, despite its pervading sense of reality, this film functions as a proverb, a concrete illustration of hope and faith in the face of adversity. That its key characters die does not diminish the object lesson, nor make martyrs of them. They were - or symbolize - two of many who died in a war that destroyed their bodies but not their spirits. And these spirits are not fighting spirits, but the spirits that make men, women and children human.