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Score: 8.51/10

Synopsis

As World War II reaches its conclusion in 1945, Japan faces widespread destruction in the form of American bombings, devastating city after city. Hotaru no Haka, also known as Grave of the Fireflies, is the story of Seita and his sister Setsuko, two Japanese children whose lives are ravaged by the brutal war. They have lost their mother, their father, their home, and the prospect of a bright future—all tragic consequences of the war. Now orphaned and homeless, Seita and Setsuko have no choice but to drift across the countryside, beset by starvation and disease. Met with the apathy of adults along the way, they find that desperate circumstances can turn even the kindest of people cruel yet their youthful hope shines brightly in the face of unrelenting hardship, preventing the siblings from swiftly succumbing to an inevitable fate. [Written by MAL Rewrite]

I’m surprised there aren’t many reviews of Hotaru no Haka (Grave of the Fireflies) that question all the praise its received. I’m also equally unsurprised due to the ability of people to gobble up a seemingly sad story, claim it gave them ‘feels’, and slap a high score on it. If you look at Grave of the Fireflies on a critical level, it’s undeniable that you’ll find deep themes and issues about morality; however, the way that the themes and messages are presented lack genuine feelings of pity or sorrow. The emotions I felt most were, surprisingly enough, irritation and frustration.

The story is basically about two siblings attempting to live and survive in a war-stricken Japan during the second World War. The imagery and the way the story is set up is beautiful, but there was so much wasted potential in the way that the plot progressed that it became underwhelming. The biggest issue that Grave of the Fireflies has, regarding story and plot, is that it doesn’t progress at a reasonable rate to retain interest. In the historical aspect, Grave of the Fireflies gives superb reiteration of the struggles that Japan’s citizens faced in World War II (fire bombing, lack of food, and destruction of homes), and does deserve praise there. In many cases the movie transitions and alternates between deeply depressing to blissful from the perspective an ignorant brother and sister attempting to enjoy leisure activities during war time. I expect that the direction this was supposed to be headed in was showing that despite the cruelties of war, a young man and his sister could still find ways to enjoy life and each others’ company. However, it fails to deliver this message this and only left me feeling contempt towards Seita.

Character-wise, Grave of the Fireflies suffers immensely. Throughout their ‘struggle’ to survive, if you can even call it that, Seita is given a lot of responsibility to shoulder in taking care of his sister, Setsuko. While it is without a doubt an arduous task to raise a child while being a teenager, Seita is depicted as a complete incompetent in his attempts to do so. He literally has one job: take care of his sister. Why couldn’t he do this when he had many prospects at his disposal?

Early on in the series I thought Seita was actually quite a responsible young man; he seemed dependable and level-headed in making decisions that benefit both him and his younger sister. He finds a place to live after their hometown is destroyed, keeps himself and his sister fed, and is conscious in being delicate with his younger sister’s more fragile psychological well-being. The way he took care of his sister and contemplated thoughts before speaking showed his capability of becoming a refined, mature figure. However, we later see what a useless older brother and guardian he turns out to be. While he’s staying with his Aunt, who is nice enough to let them stay despite shortages of food/supplies, he literally does nothing. He doesn’t work, attend school, contribute to the war effort/relief, wash his own dishes, or even teach his sister manners. He lazes about and utilizes only what supplies and money that was left as an inheritance from his family. He even has the audacity to infer that his aunt is a mean and annoying person when he was simply an ungrateful child. While there are several instances where he degrades himself in attempts to get food in the second half of the movie, resorting to theft, or begging, he is unable to throw away his pride, ultimately leading to both siblings’ demise. It would have been a better movie if Seita was framed as the monster he was, but instead he’s portrayed as a sympathetic martyr figure, which is just stupid.

I’ve heard and read opinions about Setsuko being perceived as an extremely annoying character, which is both warranted and unwarranted. While I can see why they people would think so, her character was ultimately shaped by being spoiled by her family and older brother. I can’t quite say that she was annoying since she was actually characterized very realistically. Children, if not raised correctly, often act spoiled, entitled, and greedy. Hell, some children who were raised correctly still act that way. It touches on the topic of nature versus nurture. I felt a fair amount of pity for her since nobody taught her manners, and as a direct result it’s obvious that she wouldn’t know any better; this is jointly the fault of both the parents and Seita.

The art/animation were, as usual, fantastic as expected of Studio Ghibli. There’s really nothing negative that I can say about it. For a movie from 1988, the film is easily watchable. I think the sound portion of the movie, as a whole, was good. There wasn’t anything that particularly caught my attention, but there was nothing that didn’t match the atmosphere of the movie.

I would be a liar if I said I enjoyed Grave of the Fireflies. It’s such a pointless, depressing, and frustrating watch that I would personally recommend not watching it. In a historical context, it’s informative and somewhat mind-opening, but extremely lackluster in terms of being enjoyable as a movie. There are far better historical films that you can watch in order to be enlightened on World War II. It is likely that they will be less politically charged as Grave of the Fireflies as well.

A well-renowned Studio Ghibli classic about 14 year-old Seita and his little sister struggling to survive after their home is destroyed by carpet bombing, their mother killed, and their father is away fighting with the Navy. Except they don't really struggle. Not at first, anyways. They have a loving aunt who is more than willing to give them a place to stay, help cook for, and take care of them. Far from being grateful and thankful for this lucky turn of events, though, Seita is angry and resentful. Why? Well, because occasionally she makes insensitive comments about how Seita plays all day with his sister and eats her food, instead of going to school or working. And you know what? She's absolutely correct! A 14 year old in the 1940's was considered a mature adult, especially during in Japan, doubly so during wartime, and more than capable of working for a living. At that age, my great-grandparents and grandparents (who were born around the same time as the fictional Seita, except in the USSR, where far more people starved to death and died during the war than in Japan) were either in the military or working to support their family. This wasn't considered either tragic or unusual; it was simply the way life was back then for the countries at total war. However, Seita, despite supposedly caring for his sister, can't take this horrible verbal insult to his pride. He leaves his aunt's house, ignores the advice of a kindly farmer who tells him to go back and apologize, and continues obliviously playing with his younger sister...as they both slowly starve to death. Thus, Seita is a completely callous, idiotic monster, responsible not only for his own death, but the death of his sister as well. That's my first problem with "Grave of the Fireflies". That the main character is responsible for the entire tragedy that ensues. Another weakness of the movie is how completely contrived and fake the emotions were. You're telling me that when Seita sees his dead mother, her skin burned off her very flesh, he doesn't cry? He's so tough, that he tries to entertain his younger sister by doing tricks on a metal high bar? That might make a great scene for a movie, but it's pure bullshit. Especially considering how childish and immature Seita acts throughout the rest of the movie. Him and his sister laughingly frolicking so soon afterwards also struck me as pure movie bullshit. The aunt's own temperament is equally contrived. You're telling me that she shows no emotion upon hearing that her own sister has died? She's clearly no monster, and treats her nephews quite well, so why the utter lack of emotion? And why her bizarrely antagonistic attitude towards Setsuko, the younger sister? She's four year old. Seita is the one at fault here, not her. Again, it makes little sense except as a series of emotionally manipulative scenes designed to make the viewer feel empathy. Yet, the anime has an even greater flaw; it fails to make a statement. There is no point to the story. Seita and Setsuko suffer tragedy during World War 2. They play and laugh a lot. Seita ignores the responsibilities of an adult. Eventually, they starve. What's the punchline? What's the meaning? There have been thousands of films before this and hundreds of films afterwards about the cruelty of war. What makes this one special? What's the director's message about life and the human condition? There is none. Hell, I didn't even feel any particular pity for the two fictional characters. The director even failed to do that. On the bright side, the animation of "Grave of the Fireflies" is, for its time, absolutely breathtaking, as is its attention to the most minute details of a scene must have taken tremendous dedication and effort on the part of the artists. The music, while a simple orchestral score, is nevertheless touching, adding just the right emotion to several important scenes. It's not overpowering, but rather a soft background noise that makes one think of nostalgia and regret. In certain scenes, the music isn't used at all, which, if anything, enhances the scene. Lastly, I should note that the movie is semi-autobiographical. Director and writer Takahata experienced a version of these events with his own little sister. Only in reality, he stole food from her. She died, and he survived. Now that would have been an ugly, authentic story worth telling.

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