One of the cardinal rules of children’s media has a long tradition of being violated. Beginning with Disney’s early Dumbo and Bambi, down to the recent Finding Nemo, American animated features have occasionally dared to harm or take away the near-sacred mother figure, and have approached, albeit with some trepidation, the topics of loss, abandonment, and endangerment of children. However, none of Western animation treats these issues with the kind of graphic emotional realism as Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies. Fireflies features two child protagonists, but can hardly be labeled “kiddie fare.” It is not shy about hardship—particularly the gruesome death of the mother in the first twenty minutes of the film—and many of the images of war, death, suffering, and disease may need to be mediated by careful parents. However, the beauty of the animation and humanness of the story are well worth the difficulty, and families who make the effort will be duly rewarded.
Fireflies follows the teenage Seita and his young sister Setsuko, orphaned in the bombings of Kobe at the end of WWII. When neighbors and relatives prove little help, the two strike out on their own, settling in an empty bomb shelter, scraping and stealing for food, and gradually drifting toward oblivion. Even in Japan, where anime represents more than half of box office revenue and animation is less strictly associated with children, the decision to animate such a naturalistic story is an interesting one. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times points out that this is a war film in every sense, and that “live action would have been burdened by the weight of special effects, violence and action.” To be sure, without the physical limitations of recreating realistic napalm bombing and national panic, the filmmaker Takahata is freer to concentrate on the smaller elements—fireflies, boredom, going to the bathroom—that would more realistically concern a child in Seita and Setsuko’s situation. Additionally, a film like this demonstrates how animation is frequently better equipped to reach a story’s essence, unfettered by logistical trappings (imagine the nightmare of filming a live action “Lion King”). And finally, by any standard and considering any kind of criticism, the art is simply beautiful. Night scenes and landscapes are masterpieces fit for a picture book or a wall hanging, and children will almost certainly key in first to the aesthetic.
Grave of the Fireflies is certainly more instructive or curricular than it is entertaining, but its educational value goes even beyond the important history lesson or the broadening discussion of cultural understanding. The film has great literary value, if you will, and in its emotioinal depth and commitment, it is actually ennobling. At the center of the story is a tender and exemplary relationship between siblings; when everyone fails them and when selfishness becomes a literal threat, Seita and Setsuko each look to the other’s well-being—not in a maudlin or unrealistic way, but as familial love dictates. Their relationship transcends their circumstances, represented poetically in a narrative convention as the dead children, still together and holding hands, present their experience.