Film Micrœview #416: Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

04.11.2018 § Leave a comment

Rating: Good.

I had seen this film before, 15 years ago, when I was 19, a kid to me today, but still much older than Seita. At that time my buddy and I were into anime after seeing Akira, Ninja Scroll, and Ghost in the Shell. I was visiting him at his college over the summer and we just scrounged up some underage beers and got drunk while watching it. Up until rewatching the film, I had looked back on this experience with amusement. It is common knowledge that this is one of the saddest movies ever crafted, and for two 21st century schizoid boys to more or less play drinking games while watching it clearly indicates that we didn’t get it. Honestly all I could really remember from the movie was getting a rise out of Setsuko’s imitation crab. Hell, we probably even watched the English dub of it.

Rewatching today (in the shadow of Takahata’s passing), sober and relatively mature (and after having lived in Japan as an American for 3 years, if that matters), I can recognize how utterly crushing the experience of watching this film is.

Yet I do not find it to be the masterpiece so many claim it to be. The sadness I feel watching this film is shallow. I feel it is an exploitative sadness. It’s not tapping into deep, universal human experience. I don’t see myself in it. I just can’t help but have the bottom pulled out from under my heart seeing a poor three-year-old girl wither away, her fourteen-year-old brother unable (on various levels) to take care of her.

Of course there are some expertly rendered sequences of suspenseful terror, of bittersweet beauty, of abject melancholy. But I feel like the overall organization of the film is lacking. Sometimes its loose nature works in its favor but on the whole it amounts to a conduit for this dying child to push a message.

Regarding that message, while the delivery may leave something to be desired, I appreciate its complexity in and of itself. I can see Takahata and his career struggles painted into Seita. I can see the delicateness of the balance between need for participation in society and need for staying true to yourself. I can see the tragic blend of immaturity and maturity beyond his years in Seita. I can see how this is a kid with major problems, and the film is about those major problems primarily, and only incidentally about the cost of war, insofar as he would have been given opportunities to safely work through and grow out of his problems in a healthy society, without losing his family and himself in the process.

To a far lesser extent do I appreciate the final shot, pressing this moral onto modern Japanese youth.

In any case, I think the moment toward the beginning, which sees Setsuko crying, and Seita facing away, unable to directly help her, and then spontaneously performing gymnastics to cope and perhaps hoping to amuse her – is certainly the most poetic of the film, and perhaps encapsulates the entire thing.

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