by TOM NIXON
Animation is typically reserved for children’s stories, but what’s ignored all too often is that the innocence now inseparably associated with the medium can render it extraordinarily evocative when applied to bleaker material. Using contrast with its own norms Isao Takahata’s intricately woven animated language conveys horror with astounding clarity. Also harnessed is its capacity for expressionistic imagery; every shot bleeds pathos and poetry, every scene is alive with spontaneity, tone pitch-perfect.
Teenager and son of a navy man, Seita is forced to look after his tiny sister Setsuko after their home is destroyed by bombings, and their immediate family killed. He begins the film with the line “September 21 1945. That was the night I died.”, and so foreboding haunts every corner of their struggle for survival in an increasingly harsh, war-torn Japan. The pair are often cast in a crimson hue, and many of the film’s images are wild and apocalyptic, from black seas aflame to clouds of smoke, lurching from the ground like spectral pillars. But it isn’t these moments that stick in the mind so much as a shot of Setsoku, laughing and dancing amongst the fireflies as they swarm like ash beneath a deep blue sky, as achingly serene and lyrical as anything this side of Terrence Malick. A tender scene of child’s play on a tranquil beach is tempered briefly by Setsoku’s discovery of a fly-ridden body baking under the hot sun, but she’s too young to understand it, and somehow the viewer’s attention doesn’t linger on it either, infected as we are by her gleeful innocence.
Often described as anti-war, Grave of the Fireflies is really about many things. The morality of the war is almost beside the point; Takahata doesn’t bother railing against injustice and ugliness or pleading that we think of the children – the film evolves organically and its images are complex and profound. If anything it’s a coming of age story about a kid forced to inhabit the void left by his parents, treating his sister with bottomless love and tenderness, but taught the price of complacency, pride, ungratefulness and stealing by a situation where co-operation and survival necessarily go hand in hand. Ultimately it’s Seita’s stubborn reliance on his own resourcefulness which dooms the pair, a bold and brilliant decision on Takahata’s part to give war victims – children, at that – a measure of responsibility for their own demise.
But all questions of blame are lost in the end beneath the film’s core motif. The children decide at the film’s mid-point to live by themselves in a cave-like bomb-shelter looking over a stretch of water. They light their abode an eerie green with fireflies, and Seita describes a memory of his dad’s naval review portrayed in little glowing lights. The fireflies die in the night, and Setsuko expresses a desire to put them in a grave like her mother – “why do fireflies have to die so soon?” she asks, not noticing Seita has completely lost control of his tear ducts for the first time in the film. It’s appallingly sad, but again the memory is one of glowing, not dimming. At another point Setsuko happily points out that a kamikaze plane looks like a firefly, a juxtaposition which can aptly be applied to Takahata’s ravaged Japan, where beauty is inextricably intertwined with horror. When the inevitable tragedy occurs with the anti-climactic simplicity of a master, the reaction it elicits is quite indescribable, painful of course but astonishingly cathartic. There’s something vital in the feeling that even death can’t conquer the image of these children, who die so soon but will glow on ‘til the end of time.
Features on the two-disc collectors edition include interviews, bios, trailers, a documentary and a DVD-ROM including script, storyboards, art gallery and credits.
New releases this week: An American Carol, Surfer, Dude, Towelhead