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I hate to remember that horrible day
When war became more than a far-distant fray,
When lives were upset and embittered and lost,
When I witnessed firsthand the heartbreaking cost.
Our home and town levelled, our mother gone too,
My sister and I were unsure what to do.
I took little Setsuko where we could stay,
To live with our aunt, who got meaner each day.
At last, we decided to live on our own,
And now I regret that we set out alone.
At first, we were happy, together apart;
We made our own meals and supposed ourselves smart.
But as the war lingered, the food became scant,
But I was too proud to return to our aunt.
My mother had said before we were assailed
To care for my sister; I tried, but I failed.
Oh, dear Setsuko, I remember one night;
I saw your face brighten with hope and delight
When fireflies lit up our shelter forlorn;
I watched as you dug them a grave the next morn.
I watched as you itched and grew tired and pale;
I gathered mere dregs but to little avail.
I traded and worked; then I pleaded and stole,
But unyielding hunger would still take its toll.
Your light, so unsteady, did flicker and fade,
But I’ve kept you close since that pyre I made,
And now as my own spirit’s starting to swoon,
I ask, why must fireflies perish so soon?

Readers of this blog may have gathered that I was prone to crying in my youth. Plenty of cartoons did the trick, and it took much less than Bambi’s mother to get my waterworks flowing. Yet as I’ve grown up, I’ve noticed that I don’t cry anymore, at anything really. Nothing seemed to melt my heart anymore, at least until I saw Grave of the Fireflies. Upon first viewing, I bawled like a baby; upon my second viewing with my VC, I did the same while she sat there unaffected and merely depressed. This latest viewing had the same effect on me.

Ironically released as a double feature with Hayao Miyazaki’s ultra-lightweight family fantasy My Neighbor Totoro (which I don’t care for), Grave of the Fireflies is probably the most depressing movie ever made because it is about two children starving to death, and that’s it. My VC saw little redeeming value in it since it’s enough to make some people suicidal, but I was deeply touched by the tragic story and the beauty with which it is told. Based off of a novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, who lost his own young sister to malnutrition during World War II, the film is presented with no doubt about the fates of Seita and Setsuko, but it uses a spiritual flashback as a framing device to look back at what brought them to their deaths. Metaphors abound in relation to the ubiquitous fireflies (kamikazes, mass graves, etc.), and several brief but happy scenes of shared pleasures between the two siblings act as fireflies themselves, lighting up the otherwise oppressively bleak tale with endearing character moments.

At times, Seita seems like the perfect big brother, protecting his sister from the evil around them and attempting to keep a happy face, even while Setsuko isn’t buying it. Yet he is realistically powerless in the face of ever more distressing circumstances, and glimpses of his own fragility and need for comfort are truly heartbreaking. Setsuko is also a realistic child, sometimes cranky and annoying, other times carefree and innocent. Her slow march to the grave has got to be the saddest movie death ever, and a final montage (set to that catalyst of tears, classical music) is pitiful and beautiful in the way it milks the sadness for all it is worth. The cremation scene is the part that always gets me, though, because as Seita looks at his sister one last time, all the viewer need do is replace her with the face of the person they love most in the world, and tears will flow.

I appreciate how the film doesn’t demonize the Americans for essentially being the cause of this suffering, along with Japan itself, but rather acts as an indictment on war itself and the hard-heartedness of people toward others’ suffering. Though it is visceral in its portrayal of suffering, I was also relieved that director Isao Takahata did not make it overly violent or disturbing (such as the earlier similar film Barefoot Gen, in which faces are melted from the atomic bomb; I don’t want to see that).

Though it tears me up inside, Grave of the Fireflies holds a special place in my heart, both because it is the only film that can still make me cry and because it reintroduced me to anime. Though I had been turned off by the bizarreness of Spirited Away, the intense realism of Fireflies was such a contrast that it opened me up to viewing other Japanese films that ended up on this list. Grave of the Fireflies may be slow and upsetting, but it is one of the most powerful films I have ever seen.

Best line: (Setsuko) “Why do fireflies have to die so soon?”

Artistry: 10
Characters/Actors: 9
Entertainment: 2
Visual Effects: 8
Originality: 8
Watchability: 2
Other (crying effect): +9
TOTAL: 48 out of 60

Next: #140 – A Christmas Carol

© 2014 S. G. Liput

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