Review and Appreciation: Grave of the Fireflies – A Heartbreaking and Unforgettable Masterpiece

Very minor spoilers.

Grave of the Fireflies is an unforgettable masterpiece.

It’s as simple as that. It is a haunting, difficult and frank look at the toll war takes on a people presented in an animated film that transcends genre, ideologies, culture and time.

The film begins as we meet Seita, a 14 year old boy, as he dies of starvation in a Kobe railway station. This is where his spirit begins to recount the final months of his life during the final months of World War II.

It is March of 1945 and the city of Kobe is under attack by American bombers. His mother is severely burned in the attack and soon dies, leaving his little sister, Setsuko, solely in his care. Their home destroyed, they are taken in by an aunt who soon grows resentful for having to care for them.

After one insult too many, Seita decides he and Setsuko will leave to find a place of their own. And they soon find an abandoned bomb shelter by the creek to call their home. With resources for all of Japan already scarce, it is even tougher for Seita and Setsuko who have nothing to eat many days.

Their situation grows direr by the day and because of their lack of food, Setsuko becomes sick. Seita’s desperation grows until the final heartbreaking moments for Setsuko and himself.

Grave of the Fireflies is a difficult film to watch in that right from the very beginning, we are told of how it all ends. Seita dies in a train station, homeless and hungry. How he ends up there as we learn through the course of the film isn’t any less sad and tragic.

As war ravaged around Seita and Setsuko, our basic instincts tells us to be hopeful and to root for them to survive and live happy lives, even knowing a happy ending isn’t possible.

What Grave of the Fireflies does is show us exactly the high cost of war and illustrates that toll through the story of these two siblings. Despite director Isao Takahata insisting it isn’t, this film is more effective as an antiwar film than any contemporary politically-charged and ideological media out there. And maybe an even bigger accomplishment, it is a film that runs deeper and with more meaning than any live action film could ever hope for.

Fiercely thought-provoking, Grave of the Fireflies makes me think about this last decade. Pro-war, anti-war. It’s been a discussion I’ve always been baffled by. Who in the world would be pro-war other than radical terrorists? I’m sure the right hates sending Americans into war as much as the left.

The film doesn’t present sides, only the effects the fighting from both sides has produced on the innocent. No matter your political beliefs, culture or even time Grave of the Fireflies is an honest, but tough look at the pains of war.

I’ve never been shy about mentioning scenes in film or television that make a grown man like me cry. But what is interesting about Grave of the Fireflies is that it didn’t make me cry or bawl like other TV shows and films (even from Studio Ghibli itself) have. Instead, it put me in a somber, but reflective and thoughtful mood. I was sad and angry at the same time. It makes you hate the world. I was upset and annoyed. I felt the love between Seita and Setsuko, but also the pain they felt knowing their situation.

This flood of emotions is all because of how effective Isao Takahata and everyone involved presented the pains of war. How unfair that two young innocent children have to fend for themselves. How a society can make the darkest of times even that much darker.

The film isn’t depressing so much as it is the truth. We know the truth hurts. And the film depicted a horrifying, but necessary truth to know.

A stunning effort all around. A breathtaking and emotional work of art. It’s more than art. Grave of the Fireflies is an unforgettable, profound and important masterpiece, meant to be experienced by all, regardless of our different pasts and, if we’re lucky enough, our futures.

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