Film First: a box of tissues are needed for the first film to make me cry

Director Isao Takahata tugs at the heartstrings until you're bleary-eyed

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A boat sits on a river at night and fireflies are dotted around the place.
Source: Flickr

I would often chase fireflies around in my backyard as a child, in a time when both myself and my perception of the fate of the fireflies I caught were the products of ignorant bliss. My friends and I would catch them in the palms of our hands before gently sliding them into plastic water bottles and large Ziploc bags. We created luminescent lanterns and radiant pouches filled with little stars, or whatever else our imaginations decided on that given night. The way they flushed a warm yellow were akin to the summers in which they were caught: unhurried, yet deliberate.

Grave of the Fireflies, directed by Isao Takahata, tells the story of a teenage boy named Seita and his younger sister, Setsuko, who both live in Kobe, Japan, during World War II. From the get go, the film ramps up your emotions and dispenses with the pleasantries. The film’s first shot depicts a janitor examining Seita’s lifeless body, from which his spirit emerges to join Setsuko’s – the audience learns instantly of the fate of the film’s main characters. Takahata immediately pushes further, depicting in the following gut-wrenching scene a moment months earlier. Seita and Setsuko escape the firebombing of Japan conducted by the United States near the end of the War that left much of the nation in ashes – and their mother dead and mummified, her burn wounds oozing blood through the bandages.

Takahata’s challenge to the audience is two-fold: to scar them in the first ten minutes, and then to see if he can beat the law of diminishing returns and make them cry until their eyes turn red for the next hour.

Takahata has no fear of raising tensions too high. After the death of their mother and in light of the uncertain fate of their father, a Japanese Naval Admiral, Seita and Setsuko stay with their aunt. In the desperation of wartime, their aunt feeds them just enough rice to survive and sells their mother’s precious kimonos for more rice. Takahata takes great patience in communicating the loss of all familial responsibility in survival mode – not through the melodrama typical of western war films, but through long, painstakingly patient shots that allow reality to slowly sink in.

Seita and Setsuko eventually move to a cave in the hills nearby with enough money to buy food. However, the audience gradually realizes that there is no more food to buy. Setsuko grows weak and malnourished. There is no dramatic reveal in which the starving character emerges suddenly, thin and frail; Setsuko’s fate is slowly planted into the audience’s minds, until they, like Seita, understand the inevitable. A heartbreaking scene shows Seita preparing dinner for Setsuko, using mud to make the rice balls.

Yet there are glimpses of beauty among this suffering that Takahta catches in the landscapes of the beautiful Japanese countryside, and in a scene in which Seita and Setsuko catch fireflies and use them to illuminate the cave. They are soon brought back to a harrowing reality, as they wake up the next morning to find all the fireflies dead. Setsuko uses the little strength she has left to bury them.

Takahata pulls at the heartstrings in a brutally unconventional manner. There is no romantic heartbreak, no dramatic twist, and no puppies killed. The film succeeds in part for the same reason that Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List did; it tells a tragic story through painfully empathetic scenes, eschewing overused tropes or dramatic gimmicks that culminate in the melodramatic payoffs everybody was expecting.

The film teaches us a great deal about war in its brief 89-minute duration, and perhaps in the simplest way possible. War is not a game of Risk, or merely the black and white film reels depicting soldiers and machine gun fire on Omaha Beach. War is the mother who is raped, the child who is orphaned, and the village filled with uninvolved citizens deprived of the full and rich lives they once might have lived. War is the reaper that looms over 17 million Yemeni women and children, and the Vietnamese who still suffer birth defects to this day from the lasting effects of Agent Orange. War is the domino theory and The Clash of Civilizations that is easy to read on paper and stomach when we forget or misconstrue what war really is.

The grave in which Seita and Setsuko’s fireflies were buried is not only shallow, but a reminder of the transitory nature of things that seem modest in the moment, but are reflective of the wider locus of our lives. The conservation that it takes to preserve these creatures – to preserve peace – is often taken for granted. Takahata’s work is crucial in its circumventing of human forgetfulness through meaningful, cinematic reminder.

The old stomping grounds where I caught the fireflies were real and defined, with images of the dying oak tree off in the distance and the potent smell of grass in the summer burned into my memory. We typically think of animation as being separate from reality, whereas motion pictures seem to carry greater power through the lens of a camera. And yet, no film, animated or otherwise, has ever felt as real to me as Grave of the Fireflies. Zach Braff’s 2004 comedy-drama Garden State was shot quite literally in my backyard, yet Seita and Setsuko, despite their improbably large eyes and sketched-out mouths, feel more real to me. Takahata boils down the whole range of human suffering and joy into an impeccably chosen set of diamond-in-the-rough moments. Though the style of animation threatens to make war seem distant and fictitious, Takahata creates an emotional experience that not even Brokeback Mountain and Requiem for a Dream could accomplish.

Grave of the Fireflies is a film that communicates and confers raw feeling upon its viewer like no other. It is a film that Roger Ebert once said “belongs on any list of the greatest war films ever made”. Watch it with a loved one, with your family, or by yourself. Just be sure to bring a few boxes of tissues.

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