Dir. Isao Takahata
A few months ago a good friend suggested I watch Hayao Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro and Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies in tandem. Released by the same studio in the same year, one could hardly find two more opposing companions. Miyazaki's Totoro is a light hearted account of childhood adventure with a profound yet gentle subtext. Takahata's Fireflies is a full blown, heart breaking tragedy. Channeling all the frustration and anguish of post-war Japan without once submitting to outrage or propaganda, Grave of the Fireflies is focused not on the superficial valor of wartime heroes but on the hapless civilian casualties. It is at once both mythic and human, neo-realist and magically surreal. It is also a testament to the absolute cultural and psychological devastation left in the wake of WWII and its continuing influence on new generations of filmmakers.
Takahata's film represents a composite of three types of war films: the glorifying war film (think: Independence Day), the emotionally devastating war film (think: Saving Private Ryan) and the politically and/or morally inconclusive war film (think: Gary Cooper on the mount in Sergeant York). For a war film (or more precisely a film about war) it contains little action although it doesn't avoid graphic violence. Images of bodies being ceremonially burned and cities being torched are grisly and upsetting but Takahata never makes his film into a piece of propaganda. In the tradition of the Italian neorealists who regularly fought against a faceless or nonexistent enemy (that enemy was often Italy itself), Takahata's film avoids a distinct antagonist. In fact, not a single character in the film speaks a hateful word against “the enemy”. Every citizen conserves all their energy to be put toward optimistic patriotism.
As for the film's protagonists, a boy and his younger sister, their drama is weighty but never exploitative. The children's father is in the Navy and is never seen. They are looked after by their mother until she dies in an air raid. They are sent to live with their aunt who is burdened by their appetites and perceived uselessness. Though she harasses the children about their complacency during wartime she is never vilified. When the children decide they have had enough of her misinterpreted tyranny they flee to an abandoned bomb shelter. As the two slowly descend into starvation the horrific contradiction of wartime nationalism becomes self-evident: while Japan cares deeply for its population, it is helpless to stop the slow death of two of its citizens. The tragedy heightens when the viewer realizes that is the pride and unfortunate choices made by the boy that will ultimately cause both his and his sister's deaths. However, it is his selflessness and bravery, critical and controversial terms given the boy's stealing and looting during wartime solidarity, that allows them to stay alive as long as they do.
Most especially in these scenes by the lake where the bomb shelter is located, Fireflies recalls Kenji Mizoguchi's mastery of formal composition and dramatic integrity. The hallucinatory juxtaposition of fire falling from the sky causing mass destruction and the serenity of fireflies illuminating ponds and caverns while joyous laughter echoes from all around, reflects and becomes largely symbolic of the brutal tragedy the two children face: a country both divided and united by war. Though the locations remains largely static, the narrative takes on mythic proportions. Takahata lends a divine humanity to the film's more purposefully allegorical second half. Even when he dips into surrealism, Takahata maintains an intense sense of gravity with each image adding to a tantamount sense of fate.
Ultimately the film represents all that post-war Japanese filmmakers have had to face in coming to terms with the devastation of defeat. Much like post-war German cinema, this sub-conscious weight has greatly affected the mood of the country's more thoughtful filmmakers. If Miyazaki could be charged with escapism (an unjust accusation if one is willing to seriously study the recurrent themes in his oeuvre) the same cannot be said about Takahata. His dedication to the individual in a time of national crisis is both heartbreaking and fortifying. One of the foremost post-war filmmakers in Japan, Yasujiro Ozu, showed that there is drama and sadness, joy and death behind every door. Grave of the Fireflies is not meant to be an anecdotal microcosm but just one door in the infinite hallway of suffering that was, and continues to be, WWII.