War has no winners. No matter which side “wins”, everyone receives casualties, suffering, and loss. We’ve seen stories of soldiers and their experiences, but rarely do we get a look at something that hits closer to home. Stories of civilians dealing with wartime loss are rare in a day and age where war movies gross millions. The movie Grave of the Fireflies (Studio Ghibli, 90 minutes, released 1988) explores a story even more obscure, the stories of orphaned children. Directed by Isao Takahata and based on Nosaka Akiyuki’s semi-autobiography, it tells the tragic story of a brother and sister caught in the storms of World War 2.
The film sets the tone early, opening up with 4 children at a train station dying of starvation including the protagonist, Seita. No one stops to look or check on the children, being both unable to and desensitized to the sight. The universality and frequency of these based-on-real-life events makes up one of the biggest problems the protagonists face. No matter where they go, there isn’t a place willing to support them. Even if you don’t like how Setsuko (a 4 year old) acts, you can sympathize and understand how a 4 year old would react to the scenarios she’s put in. Perhaps the saddest parts of the movie are what would normally be the uplifting pieces; when you see the sparks and innocence of childhood. Sparks that show you what the children are losing out on. I won’t go too much further into the story and writing, as saying too much would spoil the movie. However, I can certainly make remarks on why the movie was better as animation, as opposed to live action.
The way in which people experience a story matter, and animation as a medium often is considered “for kids” and not taken seriously. However, Grave of the Fireflies turns this idea on its head and takes full advantage of the medium to say what it has to say. These advantages show themselves most prominently in the simple truth that finding or creating the settings of the movie in live action or other mediums would require ambitious undertaking (as CGI was in it’s infancy). Grave of the Fireflies is old, having been released in 1988. But despite that, the art still holds up. The animation is fluid, and the backgrounds fit the time period and tone appropriately. Perhaps more impressive is the personalities of characters portrayed through the animation. A striking example of this would be Setsuko taking off her clothes to go into the ocean as a slow process, equal part careful and clumsy, and it feels like watching an actual child. This brings up another reason why animation was the preferred medium for the movie, hiring child actors would have been necessary otherwise. Child actors with the skill to portray the emotional range required in a war movie are unheard of in a bustling industry like Hollywood, let alone Japan’s industry.
One of the reasons for the animation quality is the movie was produced by Studio Ghibli, the same studio responsible for Miyazaki’s works. Although this work used a different director, Ghibli is known to keep its animators hired on a permanent basis. Having worked with Miyazaki, they’ve learned to observe a certain level of detail often unheard of in anime giving us truly quality over anything else. This is in contrast to the contract work model other studios use. The soundtrack is subtle, usually taking a back seat to the voice acting and sound design. When there is music, it’s there when it matters, and adds an emotional kick to a scene.
I was initially skeptical of this movie, since it was made in Japan and set during World War 2. Any side in a war will have strong feelings against the other, with media depictions adjusting accordingly. However, the focus and scope didn’t go that far at all. It was a story about the struggle of these children, and took care to only show us their struggles and pain.