Grave of the Fireflies is a moving, beautifully designed animated film from Japan’s Studio Ghibli. It is also an anti-war film that reminds us that modern wars are seldom begun by the people who will have to fight them or the civilians who will suffer—especially the elderly and the orphaned young. Grave of the Fireflies is the tale of a young boy, barely in his teens as he tries to keep safe his little sister while the World War II Allies’ warplanes bomb their city of Kobe.
The danger posed by the Allied bombardment in the closing weeks of the Allies’ war against Japan is not treated as bad guys versus good guys. Yes, the Japan of that era was led by an expansionist, imperialist cohort determined to seize all the existing American and European colonies in Southeast and Pacific Asia: the Hawaiian and Philippine Islands, Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong. [Manchuria and Korea were already Japanese-conquered colonies.]
Industrial interests in the USA, Britain, France, The Netherlands, Spain and Portugal were intent on retaining their economic control over the extraction of raw materials from Asia, Africa and Latin America that was the basis of their industrial wealth. That is a story of military power used for political and economic control around the world for many centuries.
Grave of the Fireflies is the story of a very human struggle to stay alive and to care for family, not a breast-thumping wartime adventure. I’ve seen it many times, yet it never fails to make me feel the struggle of all life to survive. Folks can become refugees in the lands where they are born if there is systemic violence, no honest work , poverty, illness and hunger.
The drawings are gorgeous: a night sky of twinkling lights, some stars, some soon-to-be-extinguished fireflies—other lights the blinking light of overhead bombers.
We’ve come to expect animation to be joyful adventures of animal figures, robotic toys, daffy ducks, goofy dogs, mighty mice and human-shaped super heroes. Thanks to some of Japan’s Studio Ghibli, the USA’s Simpsons, France’s Sylvain Chomet (Triplets of Belleville) and the British Nick Aardman’s Wallace & Gromit series, some animators have signaled a willingness to employ more hands-on artistry and less (or subtler) computer-imaged artwork. Yet much of what is produced for television (especially) and some movies, is so economically filmed (too few drawn frames per second) that the results are jerky, rather than a smooth flow of movement by the animated characters,
Graves of the Fireflies may be the most respected and highest rated animated film ever (IMDB: 8.5 and Rotten Tomatoes critics score of 100% and RT’s audience score of 95%) compared with Disney’s Fantasia (IMDB: 7.7; Snow White & the Seven Dwarves (7.6), and Alice in Wonderland (7.4) or Chomet’s Triplets of Belleville (IMDB: 7.8 out of 10; Rotten Tomatoes Critics: 94% and RT Audiences: 90%).
Frank Cullen is a published novelist and award-winning vaudeville and movie historian living in Edgewood.