Grave of the Fireflies Review – What are Fireflies?
Over the years, I have watched movies that expound unimaginable beauty or explain intricacy in ways that are hard to grasp with a single viewing. I have wondered in amazement at the genius of cinematography, or the precision of acting – or the sheer feeling of insignificance of the scale of the story. I’ve also wondered how Snyder could have screwed ‘Batman V/S Superman’, how (the Hugh Jackman starring) ‘Chappie’ rightfully replaced the word ‘crappy’ in the updated Oxford Dictionary and how Jon Favreau (The Jungle Book) and Alejandro Innaritu (The Revenant) have vastly differing opinions on the playful nature of bears.
And yet – there are very few films that I would dare go ahead and rate a complete 10 out of 10 and call “perfect”.
This review is about one such movie. And if you have not watched it yet, I would urge you to stop reading and watch it NOW – for as much as I may try, the truest essence of art is always in witnessing it as it is – pure and without expectations.
Hotaru No Haka, or ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ as it’s known in English, is a movie that I hold so dear to my cinematic experience as a whole – that even calling it an emotional masterpiece of unparalleled vision would be doing it an extreme disservice. I consider myself rather cold as far as display of emotion is concerned – and yet to watch this film, and not shed tears of uncontrollable sadness is a task I’m still struggling with. (That and trying not to get killed for laughing at 2-year-olds when they fall face first and hit their nose.)
This movie is the crown jewel of animated genre of film making – and possibly even vies for the position of best movie I’ve ever watched – period.
The movie is set in Japan – during the World War, and although there’s an intense political undertone to the backdrop of the movie – I’m going to skip over all that to come to the fundamental point it makes about war in general. The story is primarily about a teenage boy (Seita) and his younger sister (Setsuko) struggling to regain normalcy after being displaced by war – but the larger visual narrative you’re treated to is about the repercussions of war on innocence and tranquillity.
Imagine the unflinching ordinariness of a sky raining death from above – and the heart numbing beauty between fiery explosions.
Now if you’ve never actually seen a firefly – perhaps the metaphors will be lost on you. Because the director – Mr Isao Takahata * takes a bow * – has thrown in so many, I’m afraid I don’t know where to start. You’re always left wondering – What are the fireflies really? Are they the cluster bombs in the night sky? Or the flaky ashes rising from the embers of smouldering dreams on the ground after a raid? Or perhaps they are the Kamikaze planes – their lights blinking in parallel to the fireflies, illuminating the world beneath in flashes of joy – broken by dark long silences?
The attention to detail in the film is a consistent trademark in all Studio Ghibli films I’ve seen.
When watched together with another favourite, “My Neighbour Totoro (Tonari no Totoro)” – the pair together make up the best – and I repeat – THE BEST NATURAL DEPICTION OF CHILD BEHAVIOUR I’ve seen. In fact, both movies were released simultaneously by the studio, and the much jollier “Totoro” was meant to be watched immediately after “Grave of the Fireflies” to help cheer an audience that was just subject to a surprisingly unorthodox and grim portrayal of war. And I’d say this strategy worked – in the same way drinking a bucket of water washes away the ‘organic’ manure your Mom fed you at the age of 6, cause she read in a health magazine that it makes you smarter. And gives you better vision.
I mean, think about the genius of trying to show war without any political context or actual battles – and instead choosing to show the cost by following 2 siblings caught in the crossfire of a battle they don’t really understand! Isn’t that (in my never-really-humble opinion), the best way to criticise the idea of war itself?
It uses the indomitable bond between siblings to piece together an imaginative storytelling experience at its very best.
It incorporates seemingly little things like – the rocking of an ignorantly happy Setsuko’s feet when somethings troubling her. Or the swaying of her body when she’s annoyed and purposefully avoids eye contact, in a manner only seen in a child. This innocence is further reflected when expressing basic needs like hunger and thirst or wanting to pee in the midst of an imminent air raid. There’s so much beauty in the titbits like playing Rock-Paper-Scissor with her reflection in the lake – or the look of pure joy every time she pops a fruit loop in her mouth – or the air of elegant shame when undressing on a beach and then moments later frolicking in the water without a care in the world. And the list of meticulously thought out scenes like these goes on – and on.
There’s a certain elegance in the flames of war raging around this bubble of happiness the siblings have created.
Like the fact that the brother always smiles with genuine affection when looking at his sister, and cries when she can’t see him because he is grown well past the age of being able to submerge in carefree ignorance. It describes how war turns even the gentlest into stone hearted empty beings – about how justified it really is to steal when in need. About how a selfish perspective and concern for our immediate family can distance us from the pain of others, without us even realising it.
And while the adults mull over the politics of the world, the children in the playground remain oblivious to it all – content in the present, unworried about the future.
The movie is sometimes about the freedom of wholeheartedly relishing even a single meal during scarce supplies – or the gleeful rattle of the few remaining fruity loops in a hard to open can of sweets. Theres also an extremely interesting contrast between the depressive hatred for the bomb shelter, and the opposing sense of perceived immunity when living in a cave, away from the bustle of cities and the chaotic sounds of vehicles and trains that constantly upset the tranquillity of an ignorant bliss.
The background scores in the movie set the perfect undertone, complementing the overwhelming sadness of the film.
You cannot help but notice the brilliantly conscious use of natural sounds employed in the film. Like the patter of rain on wooden roofs – or the sullen croaks of bullfrogs in the silent night – unsettled by the crude sounds of sirens and airplanes laying waste to the peaceful moment. There is the sound of cackling flames, sometimes on a wooden stove, other times when a house burns to the ground, piece by piece. We also hear the wailing of terrified children and the desperate moans of the injured, and they come together to paint an aural fresco that will unnerve even the most brave. I have tried to explain why this movie is something else – beyond the ordinary – in a league of its own, and have come to the most obvious conclusion after much deliberation.
Nothing… Nothing I could possibly say in this review will ever do the movie even a shred of the justice it deserves.
For that, you have to travel all the way back to the opening shot of a boy in tattered clothes – seated on the floor of a busy station platform, his life slowly ebbing away. There are men walking around – some muttering curses at the stench emanating from the boy – others placing sympathetic rice balls at his side, making sure their act of kindness was public witnessed by all.
A fairly typical day that ends with many others slumped against the pillars of humanity – collectively breathing their last, dry to the bone with empty dreams and motionless eyes.
A tin of what once held sweets, lies in the mud outside that station, discarded in the aftermath of war. Inside – tiny floating lights struggle to make their ascent towards the blinking stars. From within that metal grave, emerge the victims of war – marching peacefully in a candlelight vigil with lit torches – symbolised by the pulsating underbodies of thousands of fireflies, once sought, now forgotten.
I think I know now, what the fireflies might be.
The real question is – do you?