What sets the Japanese anime film Grave of the Fireflies apart from so many other films about orphans surviving through and in the aftermath of war, particularly the films that flooded European cinema in the first few years after the end of World War II, is the lack of sentiment in Fireflies. Instead of hitting us over the head with adorable kids enduring hardships but somehow coming ahead at the very last moment, Fireflies eliminates any and all fluff, cutting straight to the core of the story. War is not easy, particularly for the children, but it's something they are forced to tackle head-on. The film begins with a massive bombing, destroying the city teenager Seita and his younger sister Setsuko live in with their mother. Seita and Setsuko make it to safety, but, unfortunately, their mother isn't so lucky. Seita finds her in a hospital, bandaged up from head to toe because of the massive burns all over her body, maggots and flies swarming the wounds. It's a horrifying scene, one I can barely imagine comprehending in real life. But the scene deliberately shows how director Isao Takahata is not going to deliberately shield these kids from the horrors of war.
But that's not to say that Grave of the Fireflies is all gloom-and-doom. What I admire most about the film, in fact, is the way Seita tries to shield Setsuko from part of the madness going on around her, letting her have some semblance of a childhood. After their mother passes away and is thrown in a mass grave, Seita and Setsuko go to live with their aunt. She quickly grows bitter toward them, believing that Seita is lazy for not going to work and supporting both the household's income and the Empire. But, although this remains unspoken, Seita sees it as his job to protect Setsuko's childhood as much as he can. These moments lack the corniness and sugary sweet sentimentality that kills a similar plot in Life is Beautiful. Instead, they overflow with an exuberance and a joie de vivre that contrasts harshly, albeit fascinatingly, with the insanity going on around them.
It's hard to remain objective about a film that became such an emotional experience for me. I think many of you know I'm not a crier. I can literally count on my hands the number of times I've cried since high school. I've had people tell me that they can't even imagine me crying at all. But I was totally ugly crying through a good 25% of Grave of the Fireflies's run time. I had no idea that this film would be so emotional when I rented it, so I first assumed I was just hormonal or something. But then I spoke to other people online who reacted the same way, and I realized that it was Takahata's sparseness and simplicity that was the main reason for my extreme reaction. You got me this time, Isao. You really did. A