Grave of the Fireflies (Takahata, 1988)

With Grave of the Fireflies, Isao Takahata crafts a deeply sobering picture of deterioration, love, and memory amidst the horrific Allied fire bombings of Tokyo toward the end of WWII. Like many great films about the cost of war, Grave of the Fireflies poignantly views epic devastation through the eyes of two children, older brother Seita and young sister Setsuko, who are orphaned after the initial attacks. Their plight and emotional abandonment could signify any Japanese child struggling to survive the harsh rationing of a war torn countryside facing defeat, and in turn, all children whose innocence gets hollowed out by draining and debilitating adult conflicts. Takahata plays with imagery beautifully, juxtaposing visions of horror (charred bodies frozen in time) alongside those of harmony (Seita and Setsuko illuminating their makeshift shelter with fireflies). This haunting strategy of light and dark coexisting creates a duality of emotion impossible to shake; paralleling both the siblings’ brave resolve to reunite with their soldier Father, and the imminent and inevitable heartache of viewing a way of life crumble before their eyes.  Most importantly, Grave of the Fireflies shows how two children take responsibility of their own survival in a time when the surrounding adults fail as human beings. Seita and Setsuko share a sense of family and honor despite being forgotten by an adult world tearing itself apart. For director Takahata, the greatest casualty of war is compassion.

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