For years, the work of master animator Hayao Miyazaki has been the face of Japanese animation to the international community. Far lesser known, but also of Studio Ghibli, Isao Takahata has been a director that has directed some of Ghibli’s more successful films. With credits that include Pom Poko, My Neighbors the Yamadas, and the fantastic Only Yesterday, he has always been more towards the experimental than his more well known compatriot and has dabbled in different styles, all the while advancing Ghibli’s renown. With Grave of the Fireflies, he tackles mature subject material while infusing the film with a realism not typical of other Ghibli works. Perhaps the highest regarded Studio Ghibli film, Grave of the Fireflies is true art, and maybe even the best animated film ever.
Grave of the Fireflies tells the story of Seita and Setsuko, two young siblings who find themselves orphans towards the end of WWII. Facing the hardships of wartime, the brother and sister struggle to find brief moments of happiness during a time of starvation, danger, and indifference by adults.
Grave of the Fireflies was originally released as part of a double feature with another wartime anime, the iconic My Neighbor Totoro. The story is adapted from the life and novel of the same name, by author Akiyuki Nosaka, a wartime orphan who experienced many of the trials that Seita and Setsuko do in the story. The film has won numerous awards and acclaim, even earning places on multiple Best Animation lists by publications and critics. With its dark theme and mature subject matter, it is vastly different from any other Studio Ghibli film.
With the decision to cast children in the roles, especially that of Setsuko, the role went to Tsutomu Tatsumi and Ayano Shiraishi two adolescents who were capable of truly giving these animated characters voices. Heartbreaking and true, the voices resonate with the film’s themes. The art is spectacular, with Takahata using a brown line technique instead of the typical hard black lines used in most animation of the time. This softens the film quite a bit and helps to reinforce the reality of the events on screen. The art itself is extraordinary, with minute details clearly expressed and fluid motion throughout the picture.
The score by Michiyo Mamiya is haunting and quite memorable. Hearing the first three tones of the theme song has been known to give me shivers as recollections of the film come rushing back immediately. There is a particularly poignant rendition “My Humble Cottage,” the Japanese version of “Home Sweet Home!” This particular scene and its use of music is among one of the scenes that I would include on a list of greatest scenes in the history of film. Carving an indelible image in my mind; the composition of art, music, and emotional investment is astounding in its breadth and power.
Grave of the Fireflies is, in my opinion, the greatest animated film of all time. It’s ability to create real characters and forge a real bond to the viewer is unlike any other animated film created since. Offering a sobering look at war and the effects it has on innocence, Grave of the Fireflies will tug at your heartstrings in way almost indescribable by words. Coupled with beautiful art, a memorable score, and one of the most emotional film experiences I’ve ever had, Grave of the Fireflies is a masterpiece that truly lifts the stigma that “animation is for kids.”
You may like this film if you liked: Nobody Knows or Schindler’s List