March 28th: The saddest eulogy

79. Grave of the Fireflies (Isao Takahata, 1988) #195 in IMDB top 250

I’ve been remiss in not watching this, especially as I once wrote an essay on Japanese films about the war. Grave of the Fireflies is one of the saddest films I’ve ever seen, it near enough moved me to tears. During the latter stages of World War 2, Seita and his younger sister Setsuko are living through the blitz of Kobe when their mother dies and they are forced live with a harsh aunt. They move out soon after and try to survive on their own in an abandoned bomb shelter. It is ostensibly an anti-war film but concentrates on the human effects that war has on society, specifically the young and nominally innocent members. It is a profound message delivered in an incredibly simple manner. The film opens with the line “September 21, 1945… that was the night I died.” And subsequently shows Seita’s death. The sadness of the film is enhanced by the direct and honest way it depicts the mundane nature of the children’s lives, the simple joy as they play by beach and the concentration on their food. These events, simple though they are, realise the characters in a way that is rarely achieved in live action cinema. Reading up on the film it appears that it was based on an autobiographical volume, this may go some length to explaining the tremendous emotional effect of the narrative.

The overall effect of the film reminded me of Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero (1948) and in the extras for the film Roger Ebert suggests that were Grave of the Fireflies to be made as a live action film then it would be like an Italian Neo-Realist film (a live action version has been made but the perspective altered significantly). This is high praise indeed for an animated film, so much is the natural prejudice to think that they can’t hope to be as emotionally effective as traditional films. I think that this film belongs to a fine tradition of Japanese war cinema, a thoughtful and intelligent genre but not necessarily one to cheer the heart.

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