Fourth in my reviews of Studio Ghibli movies, is Grave of the Fireflies. Made in 1988 this is the only Studio Ghibli movie which Walt Disney does not have the US distribution rights for, as it was made with Shinchosha, the company which published the book by the same name. (All the movies are funded by a parent company called Tokuma Shoten).
That the story is semi-autobiographical makes it all the more heart breaking, yet that is also probably the reason the movie is so human, and so authentic.
The city of Kobe in Japan was fire bombed on March 17th, 1945. Over 300 US bombers took part in the attack which targeted the wooden homes of civilians, and in the resulting fire storms over 8000 people lost their lives. This tale begins at the end, in Tarantino style, with the death of a pre-teen boy, Seita, and his younger sister Setsuko. He dies of exhaustion and starvation in a busy train station, where his dead body is treated as an annoyance by callous cleaners. His spirit rises from the body and he walks out to meet his little sister who is waiting for him. They are lit by the rosy glow of fireflies fluttering in the night.
Then we return the real beginning, as sirens wail and they make preparations to head for the bomb shelters before the bombers arrive. Their mother rushes off, leaving Seita and Setsuko and telling them to meet her their quickly. Caught in the fire bombing, yet escaping injury they flee to a river bank where they wait in relative safety.
Injured in the firestorm, their mother can no longer take care of them, their father is in the Navy at war, and Seita and his younger sister go to live with their extended family. The woman treats them cruelly and eventually they decide to leave, and find an abandonded bomb shelter by a lake. Things get much worse as their rice supplies dwindle and Seita turns to more extreme measures to support them.
Things continue much like that, and it sounds like a very grim tale, and not at all entertaining. But as with movies like Schindlers List, what makes the story worth telling is not the terror and the stalk reality of adult war meeting the innocent world of child, but the humanity and hope, that can prevail, even if only ephemerally.
Seita is the perfect big brother, doing everything he possibly can to mitigate their terrible circumstances; even braving air raids to steal from empty homes. Setsuko is a bubbly and happy girl, always playing and shouting for her sibling with a cute little voice. Firelies being a theme of the movie, she collects together a handful that have died, their fire extinguished, and makes them a little grave by their lake.
What stands out in the movie is the active cruelty towards the children, or at best callous disregard for their plight, and in contrast is the hope and dogged determination that Seita instills.
Although it's a very grim story, it is never overtly graphic or horrific. Probably not recommended for young children, but I wouldn't be over-squeemish about showing this to older children.
As you can see in these screen shots, the orange glow of fireflies is used to great effect to emphasize the warmth of the relationship between Seita and his little sister. A cute little box of candy lasts the duration of the movie, and mirrors the gradual decay and eventual resurrection in the after life of the two children.
Finally an amusing fact; this grim anti-war movie was released as a double-feature in Japan with the much more light hearted My Neighbour Totoro! Quite a contrast. Although not a great success financially at the box office in Japan, the sale of Totoro toys (Cat Bus and Totoru) soon made up for that, and firmly established Studio Ghibli for it's future movies.