“September 21, 1945… that was the night I died.”
And so begins the harrowing story of Seita and Setsuko, two Japanese children left orphaned and homeless during the latter days of World War 2.
When their hometown is firebombed and their mother killed, teenage Seita and his four-year-old sister Setsuko are sent to live with their aunt. Initially caring, she becomes increasingly aggressive and selfish as food supplies run low, finally forcing the two children to leave and fend for themselves.
Despite having a small amount of money, food is scarce everywhere, and what starts as Seita’s “grown-up” responsibility to his young sister, becomes a desperate fight for survival.
Grave of the Fireflies was distributed alongside the also wonderful, but almost polar opposite, My Neighbour Totoro, because it was thought to be so depressing that the audience would need something to lighten the mood.
It is based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, who lost his own sister to malnutrition during WW2. He reportedly wrote the book as an apology to her, blaming himself for her death. Because of this no punches are pulled - we see the devastating consequences of starvation, both physical and mental, and the comparative ease with which the suffering could have been prevented.
He also shows with painful honesty the fallibility of humans. The aunt, despite acting in an inhumane way, is never seen as monstrous - just a flawed character struggling to exist.
And Seita himself makes at least two major errors, both based upon pride. It is rare to see a story where the main, near-heroic character is made to seem so culpable for the unimaginable suffering that follows.
One criticism of the film is that, by almost solely concentrating on the plight of two innocents, Japan is still refusing to accept accountability for the root causes of WW2, as well as its aggressive foreign policy in previous years.
However, by only showing the actual conflict in small, understated moments (B29 Superfortresses flying overhead, firebombs falling silently to the Kobe streets, radio broadcasts) it almost removes the war from the story completely, using it instead as just the initial cause of what follows - a meditation on guilt, pride and loss.
Strangely, this is a very easy film to watch, with wonderful vocal performances, near-perfect animation and a subtle, multi-layered script.
Amid the death and starvation are scenes of unparalleled beauty - using fireflies to light their cave, the firebombing of Kobe - but the overriding memory is of Setsuko, probably the most realistic four-year-old character put to film.
There is none of the bluster, cheekiness and unreal intelligence that Hollywood seems determined to force upon its youngsters. She reacts as one would imagine a four-year-old to react - wide-eyed with wonder, grief-stricken at the dead fireflies, crying at the discomfort as malnutrition sets it - but is always, always, utterly dependent on her brother.
Although Anime is often pejoratively associated with kids’ movies, robots and pornography, sometimes a film arrives that transcends the medium in which it is created. Grave of the Fireflies is such a film.
Roger Ebert puts it far better than I can: “Yes, it’s a cartoon, and the kids have eyes like saucers, but it belongs on any list of the greatest war films ever made.”