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Laramie Movie Scope:
Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no haka)

A tragic story of the horrors of war

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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January 27, 2004 -- Unlike most war movies, “Grave of the Fireflies” (Hotaru no haka) is told from the perspective of a child, but it is aimed at an adult audience. It shows us no battles. Instead, we witness a side of war seldom seen, indiscriminate attacks against civilian populations, and children left to deal with the consequences of a war started by their parents. It shows us a war without pity, without morality, without honor.

The story is centered on a young boy, To Seita, and his four-year-old sister, Setsuko, who are orphaned near the end of World War II in Kobe, Japan. After the city is firebombed, the two go to live with their Aunt, but she resents having the children in the house. They do not get along. Seita, who is strong-willed and proud, decides to take his sister and move out. The aunt selfishly lets them go, even though she knows survival will be difficult for them on their own. The two move into a cave-like shelter in the country. Seita uses his mother's savings to buy food. The two live what seems to be an idyllic existence in the countryside, until the food runs out. A local farmer gives the boy some good advice: swallow your pride and ask your aunt to take you back. Seita refuses, and the results are tragic.

This is a very moving, but depressing movie, based on a popular book of the same name. The artwork is lovely, featuring the work of animation director Yoshifumi Kondo (“Princess Mononoke” and “Kiki's Delivery Service”). The watercolor-like landscapes provide a beautiful backdrop, in deep contrast to the dire plight of the two children. The book was semi-autobiographical, and so is the movie. Director Isao Takahata and his sister survived a similar firebombing when he was a youth (he was 10 years old in 1945, when this story takes place). He used his first-hand experience with firebombing to illustrate those scenes in the movie, according to an interview on a special two-DVD version of the film. I saw this film on DVD.

Since it was the Americans who firebombed over 60 cities in Japan prior to dropping two atomic bombs, you might think this is an anti-American film. Not so. The American B-29 bombers (under the controversial direction of U.S. Army Air Force General Curtis E. LeMay) are shown only in passing. Even so, I couldn't help thinking of a statement once made by Gen. Curtis E. LeMay. He said, “I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal” for firebombing the Japanese cities, including Kobe. LeMay defended the bombings, saying they shortened the war and that casualties on both sides would have been higher if American forces would have had to invade the Japanese mainland. American air raids completely destroyed 44 cities (including Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and killed over 500,000 people (100,000 of those died in a massive Tokyo firebombing) and 412,000 more were injured. A total of 9.2 million people were left homeless.

The story itself does not pass judgement on American bombing, but it does pass judgement on Japanese militarism, blind patriotism and pride in its armed forces. In one scene, a military man yells “long live the emperor!” while he is silouetted against the funeral pyre flames of Kobe behind him. Seita also has pride in his father, a navy man, and says his father will teach the Americans a lesson. Meanwhile, it is Seita's own pride that has tragic consequences for himself and his sister. He refuses to seek help and refuses to go back to his cruel aunt. Seita and his sister suffer terribly because of his hubris. In the same way that Setsuko suffers, the Japanese people suffer terribly because of the pride and stubborness of their leaders, who refuse to surrender until Japan is almost totally destroyed and hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed by bombing raids.

One reason this story is so tragic and painful is that it is based on historical fact, and the personal history of the book's author and the film's director. Another reason this story is powerful is that it is character-driven. Events unfold as they do because of the stubborn, unbending character of Seita. It also happens because of people's heartlessness and lack of compassion. Times like these bring out the best and worst of people, as well as some people's indifference. The film shows us humanity with all of its strengths and weaknesses. It pulls no punches. At one point, Seita is severely beaten by a farmer from whom Seita is stealing crops to survive. Seita is later befriended by a kind policeman. In an interview on the DVD, Takahata reveals his disappointment that Japanese audiences identified with Seita when the film was shown in Japan. Takahata clearly feels Japanese audiences missed the point of the film in this regard.

The “Collector's Series” DVD of “Grave of the Fireflies” is a two-DVD set featuring interviews with Director Isao Takahata, book author Akiyuki Nosaka, and an interview with film critic Roger Ebert on the bonus DVD. Also included on the bonus disk are historical commentaries by Professors Theodore F. Cook and Haruko Tayo Cook. There are also biographies of Takahata and Nosaka, a video restoration documentary and film art stills as well as DVD-ROM features on the bonus disk. The movie itself is in anamorphic widescreen. It comes with an alternate viewing angle which allows you to switch between regular animation and movie storyboards for every scene in the movie. The movie comes with both the original Japanese soundtrack and an English sountrack. It also has an English subtitle option. Both soundtracks are in Dolby (tm) Digital two-channel format. I listened to the English dub and it was as good as the Japanese dub with subtitles. Some people always prefer listening to the original language dub with subtitles. I prefer English for animated films, as long as it is a good English dub. For live action films, I prefer the native language version. Subtitles, like dubs, vary in quality. Sometimes the English dub provides a better translation than subtitles do. This is really an excellent package of DVD features from Bandai and Central Park Media. The movie rates a B. The DVD package rates an A.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2004 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)