Grave of the Fireflies

Year: 1988
Production Co: Studio Ghibli
Director: Isao Takahata
Writer: Akiyuki Nosaka/Isao Takahata
Cast: Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi

Don't watch this movie if you've recently had a death in the family, are going through a breakup, have lost a pet, know someone who's died, know anyone who's been in a war, have a close family member you've been responsible for, or just about any other circumstances ranging from soul-shredding sadness to mild disappointment. It will destroy you.

Like When the Wind Blows, it's an extremely scorched-earth issues movie that's animated and – as such – completely disarms you about the emotional disembowelling it's sneaking up on you with. And being made as it was at studio Ghibli, the pre CGI-era animation is gorgeous even when depicting the most unimaginably despairing subject matter.

It's World War II and teenage boy Seita (Tsutomu Tatsumi) and his toddler sister Setsuko (Ayano Shiraishi) live in Kobe, a city that's seeing more than its share of war as American bombers fly overhead to firebomb it, explosions and infernos ripping through the paper and wood houses all around them.

Their mother tells them to run for the local shelter during one such raid, promising she'll meet them there as soon as she can. Steadfast Seita puts Setsuko on his back in a sling and runs off, trying to dodge the destruction and panicked adults all around them.

Their mother doesn't come at the appointed hour and a family friend who works at the local hospital eventually tells Seita she's been injured in the bombing and is in hospital. Seita finds his mother swathed in bandages and barely alive, but knows he has to stay upright and strong for his innocent little sister.

They find their way to a distant Aunt to try and survive, but as rations become shorter and harder to come by the woman starts to complain constantly about Seita not pulling his weight, even though he has a little girl to look after.

They eventually leave and find an abandoned bomb shelter to live in, and while the freedom is idyllic for a little while the need to find, buy, loot or steal food is never far away, and with Japan falling further into depravation and defeat, nobody would care about two orphan children trying to survive in the forest even if they did know about them.

Like in all Studio Ghibli's movies there's a childlike innocence and appreciation of beauty that's stunning. The fireflies Seita releases into their mosquito net on the first night in the shelter so Setsuko isn't scared of the dark become a central motif in the story (and the scene of the most gut wrenching parallel, revealed the next morning), as does a small tin of candy he presents her with.

Also like a lot of other Ghibli movies (particularly My Neighbor Totoro), cute little girls are rendered with near-magic quality, their movements, stances, demeanour and expressions captured with breathtaking fidelity by mere line drawings.

But the subject matter is anything but childlike, innocent or beautiful. It starts in desperation and danger and doesn't get any better or let up for a minute. If you're after an uplifting story where the hero never gives up and prevails, look elsewhere. This is the story about how history rendered a country and several generations unable to prevail no matter how determined they were.

And if the gut punches of loss in the story aren't enough, the bookend sequence depicting Seita as just another starving hobo on a Kobe train station will wreck you the rest of the way.

Armed conflict gives us endless fodder for stories and as the history of entertainment has proven, we'll never run out of tales about the Second World War or ways to tell them. There's very much a place for a heartbreaking animated tale about some of the forgotten victims of war, and this must be one of the best, most wrenching examples of it.

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