Founded in 1985, Studio Ghibli ventured early on into the generation of inventive animated tales. Created by masters of cinema such as Hayao Miyazaki (largely responsible for the unmistakable adorably “Totoro”), the Japanese company soon demonstrated great skill in assembling fictional realities, captivating children and adults alike with universal narratives that have always challenged the limits of imagination. Unique in its storytelling, they have always found room for important themes in its magical worlds, never hesitating to insert timeless messages – speeches that have covered, for example, from loneliness to tolerance – in these environments where anything is possible. Not all their projects, however, carry this fantastical approach, imprinting with very dense subjects a melancholic and disturbing identity. This is the case with the unforgettable “The Grave of Fireflies” (based on the book of the same name by Akiyuki Nosaka), an anti-war feature that, even if distant from some of the studio’s traditions, brings one of the most impacting journeys in all of the seventh art.
Started in 1939, World War II divided the world into two axes in what would become one of the most visceral conflicts in all of humanity. Motivated by the spread of dangerous nationalism, the period witnessed the Allies struggle against the expansion of the dark Nazi regime, a state that justified massive campaigns of hate and destruction through frightening “theories” about the superiority of the Aryan people. While many condemned Adolf Hitler’s attitudes, there were nations that preferred to support him, seeing in the strong German militarism a bridge to their hegemony.
Within this group was Japan, a small and undeveloped country that sought to expand its power. It would be dishonest to ignore, however, that unaware of this decision were countless innocent people, families that were forced to pay with their lives for the filthy pride of the Japanese government. With an inflated heart, this is the terrible background that the brilliant Isao Takahata – another important founder of the company, here responsible for the direction and the screenplay – adopts in his moving narrative, choosing a wonderful pair of brothers as representatives of the countless ghosts left behind.
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Opting to break with linearity, the film allows the protagonist Seita (voice of Tsutomu Tatsumi) to revisit his memories, leaving him free to wander through the dark echoes of his past. Given up for dead since the opening seconds, he recalls the painful trajectory he experienced alongside his younger sister Setsuko (voiced by the lovely Ayano Shiraishi), acting as a guardian angel who lingers between the present and the past.
In charge of the plot’s progress (like a narrator, a feature that becomes literal in some passages), he ends up granting the feature a very intimate scale, divided between two gigantic tasks. Persistent in keeping the little one away from the atrocities around him, the boy gives up his youth in the name of survival, taking on hard work and taking care of gruelling hide-and-seek exchanges.
In his spare time, he invents games and gives treats to his fragile companion, steadfast in his attempts to simulate as close as possible to a well-deserved childhood. Skilful in managing this contrast, the director thus builds an atmosphere more than conducive to exploring a touching dialogue between pain and innocence, using the charismatic brothers to illuminate his dark, suffocating stage.
Extremely brave, Seita cannot resist understanding the enormous need to internalize his feelings, pressed by the responsibility to serve as a role model of strength for the little one. Sweet and supportive, he takes upon himself an incalculable burden, forced to take on fatherly duties that challenge his role as a brother. Proud, he sometimes overrides orders and rules in the name of moments of relaxation, decisions that sometimes make things difficult for the pair but extract homoeopathic doses of happiness.
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On the other side, Setsuko takes a while to absorb the full complexity of the situation around her, but eventually recognizes the enormous effort of her older brother. Nothing stops her from demanding his disposition and vivacity when it is time to run, swim in streams and have fun on the swing, defying the horror of war with her contagious purity. As such, the characters complement each other charmingly, winning the audience over with cute interactions (highlight for the emblematic box of fruit candies) and establishing themselves as one of the most remarkable pairs in the history of cinema.
It would be incorrect to imagine, however, that the childish antics imprint lightness and ease the anguishing journey of the work, creating in fact a necessary opposite effect. Daring, Takahata does not give up the coldness that lasted during the period portrayed, never easing the situation for the young central figures. Together, they flee dangerous explosions, pass through hospitals filled with decomposing bodies, are subjected to hunger and disease, and are forced to face the most unhealthy living conditions. As if the striking images and compositions created by the magnificent hand-drawn technique were not enough – the visual clashes between the darkness and the glowing insects being especially memorable – the scriptwriter also stands out for his intelligent approach to a more subtle form of degradation. This is the indifference, present in some of those who walk the streets of Tokyo and in the passage of time itself, natural to evolve and leave the past behind (as one of the moving final scenes makes clear). Because of this, the film leads the viewer to reflect by discussing problems not restricted to times of war while deepening the shocking contradiction, saddening the moments of apparent joy by recognizing them as mere reminders of what was unjustly taken from the hands of children.
Extremely difficult to watch, “Grave of the Fireflies” is an oppressive invitation to the terrors planted by war in fields far beyond those of battle. Starting from an extremely personal vision with which identification is immediate, the film masterfully balances naivety and the early maturity required by the harshness of armed conflict, producing a conflicting experience permeated by discomfort. Intensely immersive, the animation builds through an amazing aesthetic beauty and, mainly, some of the most passionate characters of the seventh art, a harrowing story about the strength of affection, capable of spreading small sparks of light even in the darkest moments of humanity. Heartbreaking, the work is beautiful poetry to keep alive the following question: “Why do the fireflies have to die so soon?