Grave of the Fireflies (1988)


To be perfectly honest, I hated Grave of the Fireflies – I hate it for being so emotional. I hate it for making me feel things I have never felt before. I hate it for showing me a different side to war, that I have not encountered. I hate it for making me weep like I have never wept before. I hate Grave of the Fireflies because it is so absolutely perfect, and I regret watching it, not because it is a bad film – but because it is such a beautiful, poignant and emotionally resonant film, I don’t think I’ll be able to watch any film in quite the same way ever again.

Grave of the Fireflies tells the story of Seita and Setsuko, two Japanese children who are left orphaned during World War II after their mother is killed by the armed forces bombing their small Japanese town. Faced with an uncertain future, Seita has to grow up very fast to help look after his younger sister, and faced with the prospect of never escaping the dreadful conditions of the war-torn Japan, their future is unclear, but they do their very best to stick together, even in the darkest moments. Do not at all assume this to be an optimistic story of surviving the odds and making the best of your situation – Seita and Setsuko are not the cliches that we would expect from a war film – they are children, and like all children, they are misguided, naive and ill-prepared for the outside world, and because of this, their story does end in absolute tragedy.

The central theme of Grave of the Fireflies isn’t a story of survival – it is a story of the effects that war has on people, and how the propaganda we are often shown, where war is seen as a true test of strength and fighting for your country is seen as a noble cause. I have nothing against soldiers themselves – they risk their lives, and many of them do so only to serve their country. I am talking about the entire concept of war, and how it damages lives beyond compare. I am reminded of the quote by Voltaire, who said: “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets” – and while Grave of the Fireflies isn’t a film that has its overtures in anti-war messages, the idea that war kills innocent people is rampant throughout – and never before has it been seen to be so devastating and so deeply resonant, and if this isn’t the best film that shows the effects of war – not only the immediate effects, but the long-term effects – then absolutely nothing comes close to this.

It is important to note that Grave of the Fireflies is one of the most amazing films ever made. Despite the fact that I will openly admit that this film is absolutely damaging, and that you will be dealt and emotional blow unlike anything you have ever felt before, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t watch this film. I honestly believe this to be one of the most important films ever made – and don’t let either end of the spectrum of criticism of this film dissuade you from seeking this film out as soon as humanly possible – one faction of ill-informed critics will tell you that this film is far too devastating and dreadfully sad to enjoy, while others will write it off as a silly animated film that isn’t worth your time (don’t even get me started on those individuals that believe animated films cannot be made for adults).

Grave of the Fireflies is one of the most sublime and progressive films ever made, and it will leave you absolutely stunned. That is exactly what a great film is supposed to achieve – audiences adore comedies, and the more a film makes you laugh, the more you enjoy it. The same can be said for Grave of the Fireflies – and while it is a bizarre notion to imagine that audiences will actually enjoy a film that makes you weep in deeply profound sadness, I defend the idea. I may be alone in this notion, but I do think that a film that makes you feel something, even an extraordinarily painful sadness, is very important. Films are made to entertain us, primarily, and the vast majority of films do. But it falls into the hands of a select few that actually want to change the world that have the responsibility to do so by using this incredibly popular medium of entertainment to send a message through to people all around the world, and to make something that doesn’t only speak to people of the current generation of when it was made, but hopefully something that will remain relevant and important to future generations.

That is exactly what Grave of the Fireflies is – a film that tells a truly important story, and while it will undoubtedly leave you traumatized, it is worth it – that sadness will stay with you, and while it won’t overcome you and force you into a suicidal state, it will make you reconsider what you think you know, and actually show you a side to war that films don’t normally tend to show. Long after this film has ended, you will be thinking about it, and hopefully that deep sadness will form into something that will help you look at the world and events of the past in a very different way. Very few films have touched me this much, and maybe only two or three before this have left me in a state of absolute shock (in fact, I will name them – The Trial, Synecdoche New York and Detachment) – and I will most definitely be adding Grave of the Fireflies to that list, because when a film touches you in this way, and forces you into changing your way of thinking, even only slightly, it is important to acknowledge it and understand the message it is trying to get across.

Grave of the Fireflies is not the first film to use emotion to get a message across – in fact, there are whole sub-genres of films that are aimed at specifically getting a tearful reaction from the audience (just think of any film where the dog dies at the end) – the difference between many of those films and Grave of the Fireflies is that Grave of the Fireflies doesn’t rely on artificial factors to elicit a response – while many films are notorious for making use of situation and sad music to get their message across, Grave of the Fireflies relies on the simplicity of the animation and the subtle nuances of sadness inserted into the film. It is difficult to explain exactly how it does this, but needless to say, even the first line of this film shows how deeply emotional this film is, and it never needs to rely on anything other than its story to get its message across.

To make matters even worse, Grave of the Fireflies was based on the book of the same name, which was in turn based on a true story – and when you consider that this film, which is so deeply sad and horrifyingly emotional, actually did happen in a way, it becomes far more difficult to comprehend. Once again, this isn’t meant to dissuade one from watching this film – and I encourage everyone to watch it. It will make you feel real, genuine human emotion that will stay with you for a very long time.

Grave of the Fireflies is an absolutely devastating film. Beautifully made, but with a deeply sad story that will remain with you long after this movie has ended. I guarantee that you will cry, and if you don’t, you must genuinely have a heart of stone. With all the tragedy happening in the world today, many people don’t have time to look at the equally devastating tragedies of the past, and they become a part of our collective histories, but rather serve as a novelty and a set of facts rather than as real events that genuinely destroyed families and caused great losses to so many people. I do think that part of solving our current problems is to remember the past, and to never forget the plight of those that came before us, all around the world.

Grave of the Fireflies tells a familiar story from a completely different perspective, and helps in making us remember the past. But other than that, it is a beautiful film that will leave you in awe. It is just absolutely brilliant, and while it is somewhat traumatic, I couldn’t recommend it enough. I hardly ever think a film is perfect, but Grave of the Fireflies is one of the closest films to ever come close to absolute perfection.

Seek out this film – I don’t urge you to, I beg you to. It is a film that needs to be seen. It will leave you devastated, but it will also create a sense of wonder, and make you look at life in general very differently. It isn’t often a film can make me cry like this (in fact, a few films had made me shed a tear or two – no other film before this made me openly weep) – and if that sounds bizarre, just watch the film and you’ll understand what I mean. Just a film beyond anything ever made before or since, and that’s just not fair.


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