Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no haka) (1988)
February 5, 2016 4:23 PM - Subscribe

A tragic film covering a young boy and his little sister's struggle to survive in Japan during World War II.

The Cinephile Fix: I’ll go ahead and say it: Grave of the Fireflies, directed by Isao Takahata and animated by Studio Ghibli, is the greatest animated film ever made. It is the most haunting, heart-wrenching and tragic tale ever told on film, and that includes live-action films, as well. If you thought Mufasa’s death or Bambi losing her mum was too painful to watch, you haven’t felt true sorrow. But that’s not a fair comparison; the truth is, it is unfair to compare Grave of the Fireflies with the greatest work of Walt Disney or any animated film for that matter. This isn’t a children’s movie, it’s a devastating war film that has the power to make a grown man cry, sob and weep. I’m not ashamed in admitting Grave of the Fireflies brings tears to my eyes every single time I watch it.

Roger Ebert: “Grave of the Fireflies” is an emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation. Since the earliest days, most animated films have been “cartoons” for children and families. Recent animated features such as “The Lion King,” “Princess Mononoke” and “The Iron Giant” have touched on more serious themes, and the “Toy Story” movies and classics like “Bambi” have had moments that moved some audience members to tears. But these films exist within safe confines; they inspire tears, but not grief. “Grave of the Fireflies” is a powerful dramatic film that happens to be animated, and I know what the critic Ernest Rister means when he compares it to “Schindler’s List” and says, “It is the most profoundly human animated film I’ve ever seen.”

Japanese poets use “pillow words” that are halfway between pauses and punctuation, and the great director Yasujiro Ozu uses “pillow shots”--a detail from nature, say, to separate two scenes. “Grave of the Fireflies” uses them, too. Its visuals create a kind of poetry. There are moments of quick action, as when the bombs rain down and terrified people fill the streets, but this film doesn’t exploit action; it meditates on its consequences.

Movie Mezzanine: A film this brutal in its emotions arguably wouldn’t work in a live-action format. I’ve heard from many critics, including Ebert’s take, that had the film been the exact same movie but in live-action, it would’ve been unbearable to watch. What each of the characters have to go through, some of the horrifying images on display (for example, the burn wounds on the mother before her death); the sheer realism of it all would’ve been sadistic in live-action, possibly even unwatchable. It’s in this that Grave of the Fireflies showcases its true power in terms of displaying the power animation can have over stories like this. Even the most grotesque images in the film are offset by the beauty of the animation. You want to weep, you want to stop watching the film, but you can’t help but discover a sublimity in the despair.

The animation acts not only as the lens Takahata deliberately chooses to give us, but also the lens of its characters. In an animated form, this story becomes not just a story about children, but a story from a child’s point of view. It’s a story laced with innocence and optimism in the face of pure misery, and the best way I can describe that feeling is in how, like most of Miyazaki’s work, it emphasizes the small moments just as much as the larger ones. To quote critic Ernest Rister, “There’s a moment where the boy Seita traps an air bubble with a wash rag, submerges it, and then releases it into his sister Setsuko’s delighted face–and that’s when I knew I was watching something special.”

Not Even Past: The movie is a cautionary tale about young people who recklessly buck social mores, but Seita is not portrayed as solely responsible for his and Setsuko’s deaths. In fact, he hardly seems to realize what he is doing or what is happening to them. He is a child, well-intentioned but confused and psychologically shattered. The movie reserves its moral censure for the adult characters.


Roger Ebert video review
posted by MoonOrb (28 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
This movie is at the top of my list of "films everyone should watch at least once but I'm not gonna purposefully see it again". It was so great, but it just drained me of all my emotions. My feels had feels and they needed to sit in a room full of internet cats to return to normal.

(also in that list for similar but not exactly the same reasons: Black Swan, Requiem For a Dream, etc.)
posted by numaner at 5:04 PM on February 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

This is a placeholder post, in the hopes that I will ever have the emotional fortitude to watch this movie. It's been on my radar since I asked a question about cathartic crying, and since then it's seemed ever less likely that I could bring myself to take it on, but Hey! Optimism endures, so perhaps, soon.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 6:13 PM on February 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have not seen it, and honestly think I am more afraid of this film than any ever made. I will watch it one day, when I have time to address its subject, and the terribleness of it, and the vast terribleness it represents that continues to this day. But that's a lot to work through, and sadness is a hard thing to feel.
posted by maxsparber at 8:00 PM on February 5, 2016

What makes the sadness of this movie so painful is that the movie is also so cute, and sweet, and playful; the affection is palpable between Seita and little sister Setsuko in scenes like the one with the washrag.

At some point in a story of relentless suffering, misery fatigue sets in for the audience: there's no point in caring about characters for whom things only ever get worse, and all the suffering starts to feel hilarious the more it goes over the top.

Grave of the Fireflies never gives you that emotional escape. The hope and love the characters have that let you care for them also makes their slow slide into despair more agonizing. The opening scene of Seita's death is also the story's finale, and it's the happiest ending for the siblings: together again, happy, and free from hunger and pain. You're so happy for them as you watch, and it's horrible.

I too am never deliberately watching this movie again.
posted by nicebookrack at 9:12 PM on February 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

This is a film I wish I had watched before I had kids, because now I think I would be unable to make it through the film. I've known of it and it's sorrow for decades, but there never seemed to be a good time to watch it. Maybe when our boys are teenagers, we'll watch it as a family and try to process it together.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:35 PM on February 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

"You don't get to pick the movies anymore," said my college boyfriend to me with tears in his eyes as the credits of this movie rolled. Yeah, never again probably.
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:22 PM on February 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

O gawd I watched this decades ago and it's seared into my retinas, especially the very last scene. I never knew how ruthlessly the US firebombed the cities, if only for some mindless revenge.

Fortunately(?) it was taken in a burglary, and I just hope someone has forsaken crime just by watching it.

I love Ghibli movies but that one I'm not yet ready to re-purchase.
posted by arzakh at 3:21 AM on February 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

A friend bought the dvd, watched it, then gave it to me. Mrs. Ghidorah is traumatized by the film, as most Japanese people are. Every August, the movie is played on broadcast television, and if she happens on a commercial for the broadcast while changing channels, she actually collapses into a fetal position for roughly five to ten minutes at a time, and goes through several tissues until she can stop crying. This happens every year, and every time the commercial comes on, or she even hears the theme song. All I can do is grab the remote, change the channel as fast as possible, and be as comforting as I can.

So no, I've never seen it. I've seen all too well the haunted look in the faces of those that have whenever the movie is mentioned.

Anyone wanna borrow my copy?
posted by Ghidorah at 6:01 AM on February 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

Saw it, lived to tell the tale. The tears this movie evokes are decidedly not of the cathartic kind. It is an amazing movie but all the cautionary tales are on point.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 8:42 AM on February 6, 2016

Man, this should have been a post to Horror Club.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 8:51 AM on February 6, 2016

Nope nope nope nope nope nope never again.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 11:49 AM on February 6, 2016

This movie exists as the nuclear bomb against all arguments that anything animated must be just for children. If I were a history professor teaching about post-war Japan, I would definitely show it to my class.

The ups and downs of the story and final fate of the children feel as if perfectly designed to evade one emotional defense after another, until the very end when you're left gutted by the death of children that seemed so completely avoidable. The deaths echo back against the actions of those around them and as an argument that the horrors of war easily continue well past the end of war.
posted by Atreides at 2:21 PM on February 6, 2016

True fact: Grave of the Fireflies was originally released as part of a double feature with My Neighbor Totoro. This is mind-boggling to me.

I can't think of many better ways to follow up Grave of the Fireflies than Totoro, though. I can't think of anything better to stand against utter sorrow and grief.

(Now if it were Totoro and then Fireflies, instead of the other way around, that would be messed up.)
posted by Itaxpica at 2:54 PM on February 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have mixed feelings about this. This movie is heartrending. But the idea that it should be feared or that it is something that can be viewed once but never again--that makes me sad, too, as movies this significant and this beautiful deserve repeated looks.

I'm having trouble distinguishing whether people actually, literally mean they will never view this movie again, or whether what's being expressed is some kind of Grave of the Fireflies "nope never again" trope which instead means "this movie is so gut wrenching and powerful that I'm going to act as if I'm incapable of viewing it again." I wonder about it because it comes across to me as if "nope, never again" is, like, the thing to say about this film, and there's part of me that feels that saying so does this film a great disservice.
posted by MoonOrb at 4:34 PM on February 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

Moonorb, for pretty much the majority of people I've talked to about it, they don't feel capable of subjecting themselves to it again. It's not a slam on the movie, if anything, it's amazingly high praise that a movie elicits such a powerful emotional reaction, one so much stronger than many people are comfortable with having, that people avoid watching it again. I've never spoken to someone who's seen it that had anything less than high praise for it.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:40 PM on February 6, 2016 [4 favorites]

I don't routinely watch Schindler's List, either, but it's still a great film. This movie falls into the same vein.
posted by Atreides at 4:46 PM on February 6, 2016

I don't take it as a slam of the movie, either. No one saying this expresses that the movie isn't good.

It's just that something about hearing it so much makes me feel weird.
posted by MoonOrb at 4:53 PM on February 6, 2016

I think you're seeing it a lot here because at least in my mind it's de rigeur to watch a movie afresh before the discussion rather than going on memory, but with Grave I can't bring myself to do it, so that's the first thing that comes to mind.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 4:58 PM on February 6, 2016

I can't think of many better ways to follow up Grave of the Fireflies than Totoro, though. I can't think of anything better to stand against utter sorrow and grief.

Let's get to the nuts and bolts.

When viewed on its own, Totoro is a gentle film. But think back to its narrative structure, and particularly the climax. The emotional climax of Totoro is built around a very young girl--a toddler--gone missing, and presumed dead. Remember when they found the sandal in the river and they thought it was Mei's? (Side note: this is done very subtly. I watched Totoro with my four-year-old recently and he didn't get the hint that people feared Mei's death; this is something for the grown-ups.) How much of a punch must that have been if you had just sat through the slow death of Setsuko?

What a mind fuck. If I had seen that double feature, I wouldn't have been able to sleep for a week. Totoro wouldn't have helped.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:59 PM on February 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

Also, you might as well make an anti-glacier film.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:02 PM on February 6, 2016

> Also, you might as well make an anti-glacier film.

Waterworld! sorry
posted by Sunburnt at 12:42 PM on February 7, 2016

There have been a couple of live action versions of this -- I've seen them, and neither has the power of the original. I don't think they could.
I kind of place this with Threads in my mind -- horrifying, but should be seen by everyone. Grave of the Fireflies has more moments of beauty, though. Threads is pretty relentlessly bleak.
posted by litlnemo at 4:16 PM on February 7, 2016

I think of this film in the same way I think of the other most depressing movie I've ever seen (also Japanese and also inspired by a true story): Nobody Knows. They've actually got a lot in common in terms of theme and subject matter. And they're both movies that I think are good to watch...once. I really don't need to see either one again. More to the point, I don't think I'd be able to without being plunged into a mood much darker than I can handle. But am I glad I've watched them both? Yes, very much so.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:16 AM on February 8, 2016

I don't take it as a slam of the movie, either. No one saying this expresses that the movie isn't good. It's just that something about hearing it so much makes me feel weird.

I'm reading it more as a sort of trauma equivalent of the Uncanny Valley phenomenon - that the movie was so spot-on about capturing the emotional and visceral reality of an event that viewers are saying they felt actual trauma, as opposed to the temporary emotional catharsis you get from other movies which may also be good but don't hit you quite as close. With other movies, the lights go up and the credits roll and maybe you need a few minutes to pull yourself together, or maybe you need a day to snap out of your funk, but snap out of it you do, because you still know it's just a movie. But with this, even though you know it was just a movie, it feels real to a degree that you're profoundly affected afterward.

And that's a sign of greatness.

I'm kind of reminded of the review that Roger Ebert gave to Mel Gibson's Passion of The Christ - that it was a brilliantly made film, but that at the same time he absolutely could not recommend that everyone see it, because it was "the most violent film I have ever seen". In the review he makes the point that the violence is tremendously powerful, and will come across as a powerful artistic statement for those who can hack it - he has some thought-provoking things to say about the way that Christianity deals with Christ's Passion, and how Gibson as an artist actually did groundbreaking stuff with this film as a result. But it was for that very reason that the violence was profoundly intense, and a lot of people were just not going to be able to handle it; it was too true to the Biblical account, which religion had spent the last 2000 years collectively sanitizing.

It's much less than 2000 years between World War II and today, but the majority of us have not witnessed war violence first-hand. And so for most of us, being confronted with a sensory impact of war violence - if it's presented accurately - can indeed be profoundly traumatizing.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:24 AM on February 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

It isn't that I don't want to watch this movie again. I can't watch it again. One of my co-workers had a replica of the little candy tin on her desk and I had to start walking around the office differently to avoid seeing it because just seeing it caused a sharp pain in my chest. Luckily, she eventually removed it.

It is a brilliant film, but impossible for me to ever watch a second time.
posted by Julnyes at 3:00 PM on February 8, 2016

This is a film I wish I had watched before I had kids,

It's funny you say this, because I was reading the post and the first few comments here and remembering the film (I haven't seen it in a decade or so) and I suddenly realized that I have no idea if I could ever watch it again now that I have kids. It made me bawl as a college student; as a parent, man... I don't know.
posted by shakespeherian at 8:25 PM on February 8, 2016

This movie exists as the nuclear bomb against all arguments that anything animated must be just for children.

No, that's Barefoot Gen.
posted by MartinWisse at 7:52 AM on February 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

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