It is one of the most compelling and beautiful movies you'll ever see- that is if you ever see it. Grave of the Fireflies has a few things working against it in terms of who is actually going to watch it: it's a foreign film (Japanese); it's animated (although decidedly not a cartoon); and it is a strong contender for the saddest movie ever made.
The story the movie tells is of a brother and a sister who survive the incendiary napalm bombing of their Japanese village towards the end of World War II. The 14-year old boy, Seita, buries the family's most prized possessions in their front yard as his mother scurries toward the town bomb shelter as another air raid begins. He then carries his four-year old sister, Setsuko, to the shelter against her confused protests. As the fire bombs rain down unmercifully from the sky, the wide-eyed siblings watch as their town burns all around them.
Seita discovers that his mother has been badly burned in the attack, heavily wrapped in bloody bandages and sedated. He only recognizes her by her jewelry (he ends up giving her ring to his sister). Their mother dies and he is reluctant to tell Setsuko who keeps asking to go home and asking when she can see her mother.
The two are thus forced to live with a distant aunt who takes them in but treats them with little kindness. She convinces Seita to sell his mother's clothing for food and then scolds the children for eating too much. She also criticizes Seita for not joining the war effort. He decides that this uneasy living arrangement must come to an end as he tries to contact his father, who is in the Japanese navy, as well as other relatives.
The two children decide to live on their own in the caves at the edge of the town. They discover however that living outside the system leaves them little food or help. Seita takes to stealing food and clothing during air raids while the town folk are off seeking shelter. Setsuko's health deteriorates as Seita's desperation grows stronger and stronger. He takes her to a doctor only to be told that she is suffering from malnutrition. The doctor turns them away as Seita begs for food and guidance. He comes back to the cave to find his sister near death, hallucinating about her favorite food, and gently reminding Seita of her love and devotion (and dependence).
The film is starkly drawn, in a neo-traditional Japanese water color style. The movie pays great attention to detail and doesn't contain any big scenes- instead relying on small shared moments to elicit some of the most gripping emotional imagery I've ever seen. For a treat Seita gives Setsuko gum drops he carries in a small metal container. The look on her face when he gives her the first one is sheer delight- and the film's devotion to little life moments is demonstrated through her joy- she runs around and almost swallows the gum ball and a grave, scared look gives way to a wondrous smile as she discovers that the gum drop is still in her mouth. The day arrives when an absence of rattling indicates that the container is empty. Setsuko begins to cry as Seita pries off the top to reveal one gum ball stuck to the side. We share in her apprehensive delight at savoring this one last treat. It is familiar reminder of childhood, of finding simple splendor in the most difficult times- and it is one of pure bliss. Another wonderful scene is when the two children are taking a bath and Seita holds a wash cloth underneath the bathwater, capturing a small air bubble. He lets the air out just as Setsuko leans down to see what he is doing. She squeals as the water splashes in her face.
We're used to animation equating to children's movies but Grave of the Fireflies is far from that- it is a rich haunting movie that most adult viewers will carry with them for a long time. The images are so powerful they will change you in a indecipherable way- change the way you look at the world, and feel about life- and you won't be quite the same ever again. The obvious care given to the thought behind each scene gives the movie an enchanting effectiveness. The magic of animation is that everything becomes symbolic and we the viewer bring with us our own experiences and filtered emotions. In this sense the effective use of animation here seems almost more "real" than traditional filmed movies.
One scene that could never have been as powerful in a non-animated setting is a moment when Seita teaches Setsuko how to catch fireflies in her hands. They spend the night in the cave, faces splendidly illuminated by a ceiling full of fireflies. The next morning he finds his sister outside the cave burying the dead fireflies. He asks her what she is doing and she tells him in a matter of fact manner that she is putting them in a grave like their mother is in. He has not yet told his sister that their mother is dead and finds out that the aunt has betrayed what he had been protecting his sister from. He begins to sob, feeling for the first time his own true sorrow with the added burden of his sister's innocent emotionless sadness.
Grave of the Fireflies is a rewarding and captivating film that reminds us of the solitary path that life leads us on. The movie doesn't sugar coat its message- the death of a loved one is devastating and that all things beautiful inevitably fade- and it is truly a remarkable and profound piece of work.