"Grave of the Fireflies" did things to me that no war-themed film has ever done. It touched me and taught me and moved me in a way that no war film has ever impacted me. It reduced me to this shriveled up ball of tears aching, absolutely aching inside at the beauty of the two lead characters, Setsuko and Seita, and the pain they were enduring. Quite honestly, this was one of the most heartbreaking, moving and yet beautifully filmed movies I have ever seen AND I was watching it on this old, battered VHS copy that didn't nearly bring out the wonders of this film. It still was a brilliant film.
I didn't think it could happen. An anime film that actually held my interest, kept my attention and impacted me? It seemed impossible and nothing had ever really come close. Even after all the praise I had read of "Grave of the Fireflies," I found myself cynical at best. Within five minutes, the cynicism melted away and was replaced by complete surrender to the lives of these two characters.
As directed by Isao Takahata, "Grave of the Fireflies" follows the life of a young boy, Setsuko, and his considerably younger sister, Seita, as they struggle to survive during World War II in Japan. I chose to watch the Japanese version, with subtitles, instead of the English dubbed version of this film. The film is often horrifying in its honest and brutal depiction of Japanese society during this wartime with its food shortages, bombing attacks and the general state of crisis in the nation. Wisely, Takahata chose to his own society in a frighteningly honest light where people turn against one another when, in fact, they need each other the most. It is sad, just so sad to watch.
The style of animation is unlike other anime films I've witnessed, and I found it remarkably effective and powerful in the way it portrayed the impact of the war.
The role of Seita, voiced by Tsutomu Tatsumi, is the most powerful animated voice performance I've ever seen or heard. Tatsumi is simply brilliant in capturing the wide-eyed innocence of this young child...the hopefulness, the absolute trust and faith in her brother. When she cried, I felt her pain...when she laughed, I felt a sense of relief that for a few shining moments she could feel some joy and relief and hope even in the midst of what appeared so hopeless. Tatsumi, quite simply, was stunning in this role.
As the older brother bearing the incredible responsibility of caring for his sister, Ayano Shiraishi, also does a magnificent job of capturing a young boy who is faced with an immediate need to become a man. He fights and he protects and he loves so beautifully. If anyone has ever wondered what a real family should look like, one need only watch this film to see the finest example of a brother and sister I've seen in film. It brings me to tears remembering it.
There is no aspect of this film that doesn't work beautifully...it has, for me, become my favorite in the area of anime and an instant addition to my Top 100 of all-time. The film features an outstanding score, exceptional direction and unique, captivating animation. Most importantly, it features a gentle yet heartbreaking script that captures the most intimate portrait of war ever captured on film.