Grave of the Fireflies review - usenet rec.movies - 24 June 1992

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Grave of the Fireflies review

24 June 1992

By Rafael Brown
Edited and Re-formatted by Steven Feldman

This list has been relatively quiet lately so I thought I'd spice things up with a rather offbeat review. I recently saw a movie at a friend's house that I was blown away by. The movie was [Grave of the Fireflies] by Isao Takahata. The movie is a subtitled, letterboxed, Japanese animation film.

Before anyone throws up their hands in disgust thinking "oh no, another one of those Japanese sci-fi robot movies, what a waste", let me say that this is one of the most serious, realistic, inspired movies I have seen in a while. Then there is the reasoning, if it is so realistic why not use live actors? The reason is because animation is a collection of drawings and drawings are art. They can convey a wide range of concepts in a breathtakingly beautiful style. Animation can convey mood and imagery in a way that actors can't come close to. I'm not saying that movies with actors are bad; they are just a very different style. Both types of movies stand very well on their own. Grave of the Fireflies portrays as much depth and sincerity as, say, Thelma and Louise or Boyz 'n The Hood.

But enough justification, movies as good as Grave of the Fireflies don't need to be defended, they're beyond that. The following review gives a general synopsis of Grave of the Fireflies as well as some of my thoughts on it.

Grave of the Fireflies (directed by Isao Takahata):

I approached this movie with some trepidation. I had been warned that the movie was extremely depressing. The friend who it belonged to told me how the subtitling job had slowed down because the subtitlers had a hard time watching it over and over again. Be warned this movie is no Akira. There is NO action whatsoever. Despite this I would rate it as one of my all time favorite movies.

The action revolves around a brother and his little sister (I'd estimate their ages at around 11 and 4). The date is late 1945 just before Japan surrendered. These two children are brutally cut loose from the family and home environment that they are familiar with and thrust out into a chaotic world to survive on their own. I guess you could call it a war movie in that it looks at how civilians and particularly children live during times of war.

While it is hard to classify "Fireflies" it is more a tragedy than anything else. We follow the lives of the two children as they try to live and find a home in the war torn Japanese countryside. They are slowly dying of starvation and the brother's efforts to provide for his sister are pathetic in their futility and realistic portrayal.

The plot is complex and realistic in a way a Disney movie could never aspire to given their usual saccharine-like quality. Make no mistake, though this movie is animated, it is NOT for kids. I don't think it's really appropriate for anyone under twelve. Beyond this, the animation is first rate with scenes that old Walt himself would shake his head in wonderment at. Not only is the film visually smooth, it also takes the animation to new levels of artistic creativity (a trait Takahata is rapidly becoming known for).

The character designs are some of the most realistic I have yet seen in any animation on either side of the Pacific. The scenery while not as strikingly beautiful as that of a contemporary of Takahata's, Hayao Miyazaki, is still detailed and very realistic. A good example is a scene early on in the movie. The city that the two main characters live in is being firebombed and fire is slowly spreading throughout various building. As the children wend their way through the street they see a fire burning in front of them. Instead of portraying fire with the opaque red and yellow usually seen in a cartoon or Disney movie, the fire is a shockingly TRANSLUCENT yellow. The smoke that rises from it is also slightly translucent allowing us to see part of the background behind the flames and smoke. This is how Takahata brings his movies closer to reality.

This is not to say that the whole movie mimics reality and does nothing else. There is another scene that exemplifies Takahata's originality in mixing the styles of animation used to set different moods. After learning that they will have to leave the city and seek help from far away relatives, the brother tells his sister that they must leave. The little girl is practically in shock from all of the changes that have happened to her and starts crying. In an attempt to cheer her up, the brother pulls himself up onto a acrobatic bar of some sort in the playground and calls to her to watch him. As he turn repeatedly turns head over heels on the bar she cries with her back to him oblivious to anything but her confusion and pain. The background meanwhile is all in pastel tans and off-whites. Slowly, the scene shifts as it changes angle and moves upward and back until we are looking at the two as if from a 3-story building. Watching them from a distance, the emptiness and loneliness of the scene strikes the viewer and it is hard not to feel for the two children.

I would write more but I don't want to give away too much of the movie. The College Hill Anime Club will be showing this movie next semester and if any movie is seen this is the one. (An interesting note is that because of the singularity of this movie the officers haven't yet figured out how to place it; it'll probably be at the end of the semester just to give it some distance from everything else.)