Saturday, February 28, 2009

Film Review: 'Grave of the Fireflies' – 8.0/10

Film Review: Historical · Drama · Tragedy (1988)
'Grave of the Fireflies'
[Japanese: ‘Hotaru no Haka’]
Written by Joé McKen on Saturday, February 28, 2009

Seita and Setsuko (J. Robert Spencer and Rhoda Chrosite, respectively) enjoy a rare moment of light-heartedness in the epic Studio Ghibli 1988 tragedy, Grave of the Fireflies.

This is a unique movie. I’m not talking about the style of animation, which is typical of Studio Ghibli. I’m not talking about the music, although it forwent from a single composer and instead strung together various works from famous baroque and classical composers such as Bach, Joseph Haydn, Mozart, etc. No, I’m not even talking about the general plot or storyline, which, while original in itself, isn’t exactly ‘unique’ from other anti-war films. No … I’m talking about the fact that when you see this movie, you don’t come out of it having enjoyed yourself and smiling. No. You come out of it feeling miserable and depressed.

But that isn’t due to shoddy quality or workmanship – hell no. The movie in itself is splendidly made; the animation quality is superb, as per Studio Ghibli’s standards, the music is quite fine and perfectly fits with the overall tone of the film, emphasizing some moments and diminishing others; etc. What makes you depressed after (and during) the viewing of this film, is the humanity in it, to put it simply. Remember that famous lament from the reporter who covered the scene of the horrific Hindenburg disaster, ‘Oh, the humanity!’? Those words could’ve been this movie’s tagline and no-one would’ve been the wiser, they describe it so very well. As far as anti-war movies go, this film is, by very far, the single most powerful vibe screaming for peace and laying down of arms in cinematographic history, and I heavily doubt anyone who’s seen this movie could ever deny that without them living in a nuthouse.

Quite simply, the film pulls no punches at all. Sure, its animation, meaning it’s not always as horrific or ‘graphic’ as seeing carnage and destruction in real-life, but the message is sent across like a lightening bolt that strikes your mind and heart like a train crashing into a car. The streets are littered with charred and dismembered corpses, and quite frankly the survivors don’t always look that much better. The population is emaciated from starvation and exhaustion, and of course constant terror that they’re unable or unwilling to share with each other. Entire cities are lit aflame in a very realistic display of barbarism and cruelty, and all that is just during the more ‘action’ parts of the film. Much of the film is actually quite quiet and sedate, focusing on the main characters as they try to eek out a living in a bombed-out, death-ravaged Japan, and the effects of the numerous transitions from utter panic, to utter loss and helplessness, are vastly powerful.

Anyway, enough about me and the film’s wretched misery already. The story is set in WWII-era Japan, while it’s continually bombarded by enemy planes day and night, sending the survivors below bolting for cover while avoiding the flames that consume most of the cities. Amidst all this, are Seita, an adolescent who plans to be a soldier soon, and his little sister, Setsuko, who doesn’t look a day over four and frankly is the kindest and most endearing child I’ve ever seen in my life, animated or real-life. Real-life children, while cute and amusing, do tend to get on my nerves after a while, yet this never happened with Setsuko, which surprised me and made me fall for her all the more as the story unfurled. Their mother is killed during an air raid, and seeing as their father is absent in the war, they have no home and head to their aunt’s place. Yet when she becomes cold-blooded towards these ‘pests’ in her house, Seita and Setsuko set out to try and survive, fending for themselves in the most inhospitable and dangerous of lands imaginable, where it truly is each person for themselves, and damned be the others.

The animation style is pure Studio Ghibli, with all the customary animation tricks (children are short with large heads, eyes are large and soulful, etc.), and as usually they pull it off quite well, mixing the lines between lines on paper and reality. However, I wasn’t a big fan of the music in this film, which I felt to be at times odd and mismatched. It’s not a big complaint, but I just think it could’ve been a bit better had they stuck with a single composer as with other movies. Mozart and Haydn and such are fine and all, but I just don’t think mixing their songs together like in this movie is the best thing they could’ve done for it.

For creating a reaction that is diametrically opposed to most that we’ve seen so far in terms of sheer sadness and the lows of the human spirit, I award Grave of the Fireflies 8.0 fruit drops out of 10, along with a warning that if you head into this movie expecting to come out warm-hearted and happy, you’ll be sorely disappointed – twice.

Seita: J. Robert Spencer • Setsuko: Rhoda Chrosite • Aunt: Any Jones
Crew & Credits
Director(s): Isao Takahata • Writer(s): Isao Takahata. Based on the novel by Akiyuki Nosaka. • Original Score: (Mixture of various baroque and classical pieces)
General Information
Distributed by: Toho • Released: 1988 • Running Time: 88 mins


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