Animation is a powerful medium that can really provide strong emotions. While it certainly has evolved throughout the many decades since it was first invented, the emotional resonance has always remained and it can really generate such strong feelings from the audience. One notable is example is the Studio Ghibli war film from 1988, "Grave of the Fireflies". This is an animated film that is drenched in sadness throughout and it's a film that stands strong almost thirty-five years later. It's a hard film to sometimes watch and it can be frustrating too, but it's one where its power is incredibly strong. There have been many animated films I've seen throughout the years that have made me incredibly sad and sometimes cried and this is one of them. It's such a powerful film and one that deserves to be treasured amongst the greatest war films ever made.
In the final months of the Second World War in Japan, a brother and sister named Seita (Tsutomu Tatsumi) and Setsuko (Ayano Shiraishi) are left without a mother and homeless when a firebombing led by Americans destroys their house in Kobe and kills their mother. With their father still at war and not replying, the two move into the house of their aunt (Akemi Yamaguchi) who soon becomes frustrated by the children and beings to treat them unfairly compared to her own husband and daughter. Trying to find a way to keep his sister happy during the dark time, Seita tries desperately to get through the tough situation the siblings are in by finding some amount of joy during the final days as their world starts to unravel before them.
Many animated films can be sometimes hard to watch and this is certainly one of them but it's for all the right reasons. Animation has dealt with the serious topic of war several times with films like "Waltz with Bashir" and "When the Wind Blows" and this film is easily one of the best among them if not the best. The way that Studio Ghibli and director Isao Takahata tell the story is brilliant. He handles the themes of war written in the short story by Akiyuki Nosaka exceptionally well with how it can corrupt an average citizen just as much as a soldier. The film is told in flashback as we see Seita and Setsuko in the afterlife with the film showing them watch their painful memories of the final months leading up to the surrender of Japan and the end of the war. The memories are sometimes painful to watch and the way that Seita reacts to them is sometimes heartbreaking. I think the scenes that really hurt the most though are the scenes where the siblings are finding joy during that time because almost every time they do something happy and peaceful, the horrors of war come crashing back down towards them. When they're on the beach and happily playing in the ocean, they eventually run into a corpse which Setsuko mistakes for a sleeping man. The day after they catch fireflies and let them go while they light up the room, all of them fall dead and they're buried in a small grave. We know how the film will eventually end and watching these scenes of joy throughout the film is all the more heartwrenching and tragic. The film also has moments that are also particularly frustrating, especially regarding the character of the aunt. Compared to other animated relative characters where they are portrayed as villains and downright evil, the aunt clearly isn't trying to be evil but she does come across as selfish, spiteful, and often malicious. She finds the children as being somewhat lazy despite them not having a home or school to go to and not really knowing what to do and she often scolds them for just being in the house feeling like they're not doing much to help with the war compared to her own daughter and husband. The scene that particularly stands out is when Seita and Setsuko are singing a song together to try to stay entertained and she yells at them saying that it's ridiculous to be singing during wartime. It really stings and is just painful to watch. The film then builds to a very painful ending with one of the most melancholic montages ever put in an animated film. As far as the animation goes, it's terrific. The way Takahata and Ghibli composed the scenes really helps the film stand out and one detail that I really loved was the outlines of the characters. While most animation characters are usually inked with black outlines in films, this film uses brown outlines for the characters instead. I heard it drove some of the animators at the studio crazy, but it was worth it since it makes the characters really help blend into the backgrounds and feel like they belong in this world, especially with the backgrounds that don't have much detail in them. The war scenes are also very scary to watch with their construction as you see the flames ravage through the city and the American bombers roaring above. It stands out particularly in the opening scene where we see Seita out of breath gasping for air after running away from the fires and Setsuko shaking in fear from the dreadful sight. This leads me to talk about the characters who are very well realized. The relationship that Seita and Setsuko have in the film truly feels genuine and I really got the sense that it was an older brother trying desperately to look after his baby sister and trying to make her understand the dangers in the world. It would be very easy to take these characters the wrong way by making Seita seem too aggressive and angsty as he's a young teenager and Setsuko very bratty and spoiled due to being very young, but Takahata handles them perfectly. It also makes the interactions they have off of the other characters that much more heartbreaking, particularly near the end of the film. It just is a film aching in sadness.
And overall, it's what helps make "Grave of the Fireflies" the masterpiece that it is. The story is very mature and handles its war themes beautifully, the animation is very gorgeous and finely detailed, and the characters are all well written and felt genuine. This is a film that truly is a special film from Studio Ghibli that I cannot recommend enough. It's such a beautiful and emotional tragedy and one that shows how powerful a medium animation truly is. This truly is a powerful war film and one that will live on for a very long time.