For Reel

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
February 22, 2016, 2:09 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Isao Takahata
5 Stars
Grave of the FirefliesIt’s shocking to learn that Grave of the Fireflies made its debut as a double feature with Studio Ghibli’s other masterpiece about siblings, My Neighbor Totoro. Tim Brayton at Antagony & Ecstasy rightly points out a few of the similarities in the films’ non-condescending approach regarding the point-of-view of characters who float in the uneasy territory between childhood and adulthood, but the essences of the stories are nonetheless very different. Grave of the Fireflies, like My Neighbor Totoro, does have sublime moments of caring between people–it is a brutal film, but one very much linked to a theme of empathy–but it is largely about the ugliness of war. Furthermore, director Isao Takahata’s neorealistic approach brings animation to an entirely new light, pushing the medium even further than Totoro does. Animation allows more room for the viewer’s imagination than live action ever could, and yet Takahata assaults the audience with images as grimly realistic as the corpse of a mother covered with maggots. Meanwhile, accompanying images of brutality are the shots of the titular fireflies, which illuminate the faces of the siblings as the film touchingly remarks on their love for one another. Roger Ebert was taken with the choice of animation for this material, arguing that, “animation produces emotional effects not by reproducing reality, but by heightening and simplifying it, so that many of the sequences are about ideas, not experiences.” Takahata’s mastery of the form (which was also on display in his followup masterpiece Only Yesterday) involves his ability to convey the “feeling” of a scene through simple framings or even plays with the color palette. The opening framing device could have been an overly-sentimental misjudgment, but it is approached with a delicacy that doesn’t undermine the horrors that the characters go through, but rather suggests a warmth in their eternal bond. Takahata achieves this through the use of objects (a spilled container that prompts an appearance) and lighting, with the symbolic fireflies serving as a haunting echo of the fallen bombs. This is one of the rare war films that makes its statement by simply being content to mourn, not by sermonizing what could have been done differently.

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