Friday, September 24, 2010

Grave of the Fireflies

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: anime / In category: 6 of 10 / Overall: 77 of 100

Tim at Antagony & Ecstasy undertook a complete retrospective of Studio Ghibli earlier this year. Click here for his review of ‘Grave of the Fireflies’. It describes an almost identical emotional response to the film as that which I had. It does so more eloquently than I could hope to.

Read Tim’s review, then – if you feel there’s anything more that needs to be said – pop back here and read my thoughts.

As a recent convert to anime, I’ve already experienced what long-term anime fans must have put up with for years on end to the point at which they’re probably ready to throttle the next person who says it to them. The scenario: you’re talking to someone who’s never seen an anime. They’re not entirely sure what the word even means. You elucidate. You mention some of your favourite titles. You pick something by way of recommendation that is easily accessible: a good anime starter kit (I normally tip a nod to ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’ or ‘Spirited Away’, the non-anime aficionado at least standing a chance of having heard of the latter due to the Oscar). They listen politely, a frown slowly sketching its way across their brow. You finish talking. They give you a sideways glance, pause for a moment as if debating whether to give voice to it or not, then say, “But they’re, like, cartoons right?”

I now have a response to this. I will simply lend my copy of ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ to anyone who says that, or any variation of it, from now on. When they return it, I’ll ask whether they cried. Anyone who says no is either clinically dead or a liar.

A brief digression: I never used to cry much at films. Even as a kid, seeing ‘E.T.’ at the age of seven or eight, sitting in an auditorium full of children of a similar age all of whom had been reduced to lumps of blubbering jelly, I remained resolutely dry-eyed. ‘Titanic’? I felt like crying – but only at the waste of five quid and three hours of my life I’d never have again. I didn’t even blub at the end of ‘Toy Story 3’. But … I fucking blubbed ten minutes into ‘Up’, oh hell yeah. Big style at the end of ‘Shadowlands’; I remember exiting the Showcase, stumbling across the car park and sitting in my car for a good ten minutes before I was in an appropriate state to drive. The “it’s not your fault” scene in ‘Good Will Hunting’? Pass the Kleenex. ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ – first scene and last scene, every damn time.

It’s a funny thing. Some movies just hit me. Others try to and I resent that their directors are so blatantly trying to manipulate me. One of the great masters of emotional manipulation – to such a degree, in my opinion, that it borders on emotional pornography – is Steven Spielberg. I didn’t cry at ‘Schindler’s List’. In fact I got annoyed at it.

Which means I can’t take the easy route and call ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ the ‘Schindler’s List’ of anime. To do so would be a disservice. Apart from a late-in-the-game use of Amelita Galli-Curci’s syrupy rendition of ‘There’s No Place Like Home’ on the soundtrack (this in a film whose protagonists’ home is destroyed about five minutes in), writer/director Isao Takahata doesn’t put a foot wrong or try to sugar-coat the grimness of his material with a coating of sentimentality.

This isn’t to say, however, that he doesn’t find moments of genuine beauty, poignancy and humanity amidst the suffering. How much suffering? Well, the story starts with teenage Seito and his younger sister Sesuko surviving an air raid over rural Japan that destroys their home. Finding their way to a makeshift hospital in the grounds of a school, Seito discovers his mother, hideously injured and almost mummified in bandages. He’s old enough and savvy enough to know that she stands no chance of recovery, but elects not to tell Sesuko.

Fetching up at the home of their aunt, a staunch patriot who berates Seito for not “serving his country” (never mind that Seito’s father is an admiral in the navy) and whose snide, petty judgementalism finally drives Seito and Sesuko out of her house and into the woods where they establish a makeshift home in an old shelter that no-one else uses and do their best to fend for themselves.

‘Grave of the Fireflies’ – and if you’re wondering about the significance of the title, it’s explained in a scene which is truly heartbreaking – can best be described as being about the resilience (not the triumph, it’s too honest a movie to fob you off with that) of the human spirit. It’s about how – in the midst of conflict, uncertainty and sudden death – a slender thread of humanity can spin itself out even as hunger and deprivation deplete the body and hope threatens to ebb from the soul.

I really don’t want to say too much about this film. I don’t want to describe its narrative beyond the broad strokes I’ve already given. I don’t want to discuss how poignant the framing device is. I don’t want to reveal why it’ll break your heart, open your tear ducts and leave you feeling like you’ve been through everything its painfully young heroes endure – just that it will.

‘Grave of the Fireflies’ is a work of terrible beauty, as quietly poetic as it is overwhelmingly intense. It is at once a celebration and a lament, a hymn and a howl of outrage. It treats its material more effectively and with more emotional responsibility than most live action films of a similar ilk. I still have many more anime titles to discover, explore and appreciate, but I’m already confident that this will prove itself one of the most important.


fhasai da-nga said...

From which you have said. It makes me excited and want to see this great cartoon.

The Film Connoisseur said...

Im right there with you man, whoever doesnt cry during this film is a cold hearted bastard, its just too sad.

As for movies that make you cry, I guess that changes with every person because different affect different people, but some movies will collectively make us cry, this being one of them.

Im amazed how these animators could evoke so much emotions through their drawings...this might very well have been a live action film. Awesome movie, I seem to remember recommending it to you when you reviewed an anime a while back.

Neil Fulwood said...

Fhasai - thanks for stopping by and thanks for your comment. I wholeheartedly recommend this movie, but be warned - it's emotionally draining.

Francisco - it was your recommendation that persuaded me to factor 'Grave of the Fireflies' into my 10 anime reviews for Operation 101010. It had been in my wife's collection (she's the anime connoisseur of the household) for over two years, the DVD still unwrapped; we'd held off from watching it, knowing how emotionally devastating it would be.

I'm glad I finally got round to watching it, though. It upset the hell out of me, but it makes a really powerful statement on the human cost of war. When you see two kids, one of them just a little girl, left homeless and spurned by the only family they have left and eventually wearing away through malnutrition and exhaustion, it hammers homes the pointlessness of war. This isn't about politics or territorialism or whether the nature of the conflict is right or wrong; it's about the sheer waste of life.

And you're absolutely right about the emotional content of the artwork. After about 15 minutes, I'd completely forgotten I was watching an animated film; the characters and their hardships seemed absolutely real.

The Film Connoisseur said...

Yes, thats why I love it so much. I mean they should show this film to any polititian who is even remotely considering nuclear/atomic devastation.

I guess its easy to give an order to nuke a nation from far away, and not see the results of what you've done.

When you look at the true damage you can cause with this kind of attack on a nation, on human lives, you'll think about it twice. Thats what I loved about this movie, it gets really close and personal.

I wonder if it was based on a real life story, or a compilation of stories?

Screwhead Productions said...

It is in fact based off on a semi-autobiographical work. The author was "Seita," and wrote it as catharsis and as an apology in hopes of coming to terms with the guilt he carried from allowing his sister to die. (He, like the Seita, would eat some of the scavenged food before feeding his sister - an act he knows in part to be the cause of his sister's starvation.)

Knowing the story only heightens the film's meaning and emotional depth - though in the real story the older brother lived. One has to wonder though - which is the sadder ending? Especially knowing the guilt haunting him for the rest of his life...

Either way, it's definitely a must-see film and most would never wish to revisit....