Grave of the Fireflies

(If you haven’t already, check out my previous essay on Isao Takahata’s film The Story of Yanagawa’s Canals)

Grave of the Fireflies is Isao Takahata’s 1988 masterpiece, his first official film release under Studio Ghibli as director, and one of the most critically-acclaimed anime and war films of all time. Much has been said about the raw emotional power of the film, of the pessimistic picture it paints about how war affects the innocent, of its implicit indictment of patriotism over the vastly more important ideologies of human feeling and compassion, while simultaneously staying constantly relevant in a time when refugee crises span much of the Earth and conservative demagogues fight for only the rich and powerful at the expense of their own people, both their compatriots and fellow human beings worldwide. As Seita and his little sister Setsuko roam through a post-World War II wasteland where the center is now far gone, Japan can no longer help its own people, and many disadvantaged people, like children, were left behind to die of malnutrition and disease.

Religion, and specifically Kami worship, often play roles in the films of Takahata. From the indigenous Ainu religious tale of Horus, to the ecological-mystical fable of Pom Poko, and all the way into the traditional Japanese tale in Kaguya-hime no Monogatari. But here, the only mention of religion comes with occasional notions of State Shinto, which was explicitly commingled with Japanese Militarism and the cult of Emperor Worship as a Divine Kami on Earth. The protagonists of the film are children who are innocent and unconcerned with these ideological notions, but are subject to the effects of these ideologies time and again as their mother dies during a firebombing of Kobe, their father dies at sea whilst commanding a ship for the Imperial Japanese Navy, and their Aunt becomes so overcome with jingoism that she begrudges sharing food and resources with Seita and Setsuko in lieu of giving more for the war effort.

Takahata famously went on record stating that the film was not an anti-war film. No. This approach is too simplistic. Rather, the fault lies within the ideology of imperialism as a whole and the moral atrocities that followed were the result of a weak moral character on the part of the Americans who fought back with nuclear weapons and firebombing of civilians en masse, but also the result of a Japanese military-political effort to continue to make money and expand their influence throughout the southeast Asia, consequences be damned, and then to carry on the war far past the time it was truly lost just for the purposes of vain pride. The purpose of attacking the causes of the war is that the war could have been avoided. The reason for not attacking war outright is that during this time, there was another conflict that may be one of the only just wars of the entire 20th century: namely, the fight against Germany. But I digress.

Grave of the Fireflies stands at an artistic juncture for Takahata. His films were exhibiting an increasing social conscious and realism during this time that was previously only apparent on a minor scale. This was the first totally mature, long-form feature film project for Takahata that he was able to produce without having other projects on his mind and on his desk at the same time. It was a time of flux. Whereas Takahata produced Nausicaa and The Castle in the Sky for Miyazaki previously, they were now working on projects simultaneously. So Toru Hara, the key figure in Studio Topcraft, which was bought out by Ghibli in 1985 and became the animation team behind Studio Ghibli, decided to produce both Grave of the Fireflies and My Neighbor Totoro to give both of the film’s auteurs time to focus on the craft of filmmaking totally. Projects would continue to cycle between the three figures as producer for the next three years until Takahata’s 1991 film Only Yesterday, when Toshio Suzuki would become the producer for all future Ghibli film projects.

Although Joe Hisaishi had been working on every Miyazaki film as composer since Nausicaa, and would continue to produce the score for every film thereafter, he had not yet produced a score for a Takahata film. Instead, Grave of the Fireflies was scored, to brilliant effect by Michio Mamiya. Mamiya had previously produced the scores for Takahata’s films Horus, Gauche the Cellist, and The Story of Yanagawa’s Canals, but Grave of the Fireflies would prove to be his final film score for a film, animated or otherwise. He is 88 years old now, and was only 58 at the time, but for some reason or other decided to end his film score career forever then and there. He has sense composed and conducted pieces for various orchestra however. After this film, Takahata would employ a different composer every time for the remainder of his work, but would not collaborate with the legendary Joe Hisaishi until his final film in 2013: Kaguya-hime no Monogatari.

Finally, throughout the sixties and seventies, a young animator had worked with Miyazaki and Takahata numerous times as key animator, beginning with the Lupin III anime series, both Panda! Go, Panda! films, and Future Boy Conan through to Anne of Greene Gables and Sherlock Hound. This young man was Yoshifumi Kondo. In 1987, he joined the relatively newly formed Studio Ghibli and spent the next twelve years working as key animator on many projects, culminating in his employment in 1995 as director for Whisper of the Heart: the first feature-length Ghibli film not directed by either Takahata or Miyazaki. But his first work for the Studio was as storyboard artist, character designer, and animation director for Grave of Fireflies.

Though his first project with the company, his previously history working for Takahata and Miyazaki propelled him to the forefront of the new production. Because Isao Takahata cannot draw, he relies heavily on other creative talents to bring his visual and thematic concepts to reality in film. Yoshifumi Kondo was the perfect conduit in this regard as he created beautiful, often nearly-surreal vignettes throughout the film that relate Seita’s memories or show emotionally-gripping moments in an arthouse style. He decided to outline character models and sets with brown lining instead of the more traditional black in an effort to soften the animation and make it blend more seamlessly with the backgrounds and the realistic animation style of natural environments (a continuance of the poetic realism at play in Takahata’s earlier film Gauche the Cellist). Arguably, without Kondo the film would not be the visual splendor it became. This success is evidenced by the fact that Miyazaki and Takahata continued to use his strengths as a key animator and animation director in the coming years and were setting him up to become their creative successor at Studio Ghibli in the coming years.

Overall, the film is a beautiful, though somber reflection on war, ideology, domestic refugees, the destruction of innocence, and a call for a more reflective politics that engages more than business and power dynamics, but always puts people first. It is a gripping rendition of the 1967 autobiographical short story Grave of the Fireflies by Akiyuki Nosaka, which could have only been realistically portrayed to such powerful effect in the field of animation. And in this, it stands as another testament to the power of animation within the oeuvre of Isao Takahata, and more generally, within the Japanese medium of anime at large.


Cody Ward

[Next up: Only Yesterday]


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