Get teary all over again with this beautiful reissue of Isao Takahata's lesser-seen Ghibli gem.
If Hayao Miyazaki is the John Lasseter of Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli, then Isao Takahata is the Andrew Stanton of the outfit. Both are creative powerhouses and create works of art which are entirely in keeping with the core ideology of their brand, though there are minute modulations that subtly differentiate the directors' style, approach and delivery of a potent, humanistic message.
Made in 1988, the same year as Miyazaki's magnum opus, My Neighbour Totoro, Takahata's Grave Of The Fireflies (adapted from a novel by Nosaka Akiyuki) also focuses on the strenuous trials of youth and the worries that come from being permanently annexed from parental warmth. But where Totoro took place in a magical woodland idyll, this takes to the still-smouldering firestorms of Japan in the direct aftermath of the World War Two.
Seita is a strapping, industrious teenager who is charged with tending to his five-year-old sister Setsuko after their hometown is trammelled by the fiery carpets of enemy napalm. The pair locate a cave which they adapt into a make-shift shelter, and Seita concocts fanciful tales and excuses to explain to his sis why their parents remain absent. They live off the land, but the war has left the remaining Japanese populous desperate and self-interested, and so the pair's efforts to sustain a livelihood for this cruel interim period eventually prove futile (the opening shot sees Seita ignobly passing away in a subway corridor, so it seems that if it is intended as a story of triumph over adversity, it's one that's dashed with bitter melancholy).
Recalling such war survival movies as Polanski's The Pianist, John Boorman's Hell In The Pacific and Jimmy T Murakami's bittersweet Raymond Briggs adaptation, When The Wind Blows, Grave Of The Fireflies taps into the human brutality that remains when the guns have ceased firing and the potentially destructive naivety of the very young. Its insights into child psychology are sage and ripe for drama, as the protagonists' downfall is essentially engineered by their refusal to believe that human beings have the capacity for such unalloyed barbarism.
The idea that "War is Hell" has almost become something of a climatic cliché, but Takahata's film explores this well-worn slogan from new, exciting and harrowing angles. It's a strange and brilliant film, particularly in the way it deals with intensely dark subject matter with touches that occasionally verge on the winsome. But the film follows a traditional arc, as exuberance and hope slowly disintegrate and give way to regret, disillusion and, eventually, death. It's hard to think of anyone walking away from this film completely untouched, particularly as it's final half-hour is traumatising in the extreme. What young children will take away from the film is anyone's guess.
Even though it's been highly lauded (by no less than Roger Ebert), it's still one of Ghibli's lesser-known titles.
Utterly, utterly, utterly harrowing.
You may feel the need to buy shares in Kleenex after this one.