The Japanese animation film studio Studio Ghibli was founded in Koganei, Japan in 1985. The studio has released such classics as My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, the last of which remains the only hand-drawn foreign film to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.
The studio's films are known for imagining new worlds with lush landscapes and peculiar creatures. One film, however, breaks this dogma. In 1988, Studio Ghibli released its second full-length feature titled Grave of the Fireflies. The film is a hauntingly sad profile on the consequences of war. While the movie is well known in Japan, many Americans have yet to discover it.
The film follows a pre-teen boy named Seita and his young sister Setsuko at the end of World War II. Firebombs frequently bring devastation and death to their village. As time passes, food and money become scarce.
The children live with their aunt at first, but she becomes increasingly cruel to them as the stresses of war affect the country. Seita and Setsuko soon move out and take refuge in an abandoned bomb shelter. They are forced to cook and clean for themselves while still trying to retain the innocence of their youth.
When the movie was first released, many questioned the reasoning behind its animation style; there is nothing of the talking creatures or surreal environments that normally thrive in animated films. Fireflies is rooted in the realism of war, yet the reason the film is so effective is because of the way in which it is presented.
We are accustomed to the live action of war movies that feature men shooting each other with guns. Fireflies forces us into a different viewpoint. It causes us to rethink our beliefs and values on the controversial issue of war.
Though the animation style is simple, the film holds exquisite depth. Fireflies appear frequently and consistently throughout the film – Seita and Setsuko share a wonderful moment together when they attempt to capture and fill the bomb shelter with as many of the creatures as possible. The scene is not only visually beautiful, it captures perfectly the imagination of youth and contrasts it with the death that surrounds the two children.
Grave of the Fireflies is not an easy film to watch. Some moments are achingly sad, and the movie refuses to sugarcoat the ideas of death and war.
The movie never actually shows us the enemy in its human form. It's true that we see the planes that drop the bombs and that our knowledge of history tells us who is in them, but we never see it outright. This indirect presentation emphasizes the fact that people are not the enemy; the enemy is the ideology that says we must use violence in order to resolve conflicts. Grave of the Fireflies shows us that the innocent are often the ones that suffer.