Top positive review
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Not an easy watch, but very thought-provoking and beautiful
on April 18, 2016
***Review Contains Spoilers***
A stark and harrowing tale of orphaned teen Seita and his younger sister Setsuko as they try to survive on their own in war-torn Japan. Right from the start the film really pulls no punches in its depiction of the horrors of war. Images of air raids, burning homes, mass destruction, injured citizens and mounds of bodies are just a few of the searing images which present themselves within the first 30 minutes of the film. Interestingly though, there is a stillness to this first section of the film even in the midst of such horror. Not only is there very minimal music, there are many scenes with no sound at all save for the voices of the characters speaking. We don't hear the groans of the injured, the shuffle of the displaced townsfolk, or the crackles of the fires. It's an interesting decision which gives this opening section a very solemn and observant feel that forces the viewer to confront the emotional horror without dramatization or distraction.
Beyond the shocking opening, the core of the film goes on to examine how the siblings cope with the death of their mother and loss of their home. At first, they take refuge in a paternal aunt's home who is less-than welcoming. A major theme of the film explored here is how the family unit and society is affected by war. There is a "circling of the wagons" portrayed here where the immediate family is given precedence and the individual begins to fend for him/herself and becomes less willing to offer help to others. Even from the start Setsuko and Seita's aunt seems less than enthusiastic about letting her niece and nephew stay with her and her resentment only grows from there. The lack of food supplies and extra mouths to feed puts a strain on her and she begins to favor her own family over Setsuko and Seita. This theme repeats itself with the other townsfolk as well who are hesitant to share food even as Setsuko grows sick and malnourished.
The bond between neighbors slowly dissolves and a sense of impersonality develops. We as the audience watch as these two children are essentially excommunicated from society and even who we would normally consider "honorable" citizens like a police officer and doctor ultimately turn a blind eye to their suffering. The war itself is portrayed with a similar impersonality. We never see any of the soldiers fighting or hear any of their stores. We simply see these nameless, faceless airplanes flying thousands of feet overhead, dropping their bombs and flying on, unaware and uncaring of the suffering that directly results. It feels like a commentary on the depersonalization and dehumanization that must take place for such acts of violence to be carried out.
The film also makes good use of its central firefly metaphor for a few very poignant scenes. From what I gathered, the fireflies in the film essential represent those lost to war; they are the silent remnants and glowing reminders of the departed. Keeping this in mind throughout the film gives many scenes an eerie quality. Setsuko and Seita are often seen surrounded by fireflies which essentially feel like harbingers of the death that will eventually befall them both. One scene in particular struck me: the two spend their first night in the converted bomb shelter after running away from their aunt and fill the space with fireflies to keep it lit. It's a beautiful scene on the surface, but with a very dark undertone. At this point, even before their deaths, Setsuko and Seita have left the land of the living and are already taking their place among the dead.
Another particularly powerful scene directly follows. Setsuko reveals that she has been aware that their mother has died for some time now, a detail which Seita thought he had successfully kept secret from her. Upon hearing her speak these words, Seita breaks down into tears and this is the first time we see him truly emotionally react to the death of his mother. Up until this point he had shouldered the role of protector, keeping a straight face and trying to protect Setsuko from the horrors that have befallen them as much as possible. It is at this moment that he realizes how futile that action has been, as the war has already made its irreversible impact on Setsuko. At this moment, I feel he is crying not just for his mother, but also for the innocence that he knows his sister has lost despite his best efforts.
Although it isn't an easy watch by any means, Grave of the Fireflies is a powerful statement on war and its devastating personal and societal impacts. It feels very fitting that Seita goes against the advice to cremate his younger sister in a church, instead opting for an open field. After being denied help and care from so many of his fellow citizens, he has recognized the grave societal change which has taken place and has all but abandoned tradition or custom. He chooses to grieve the loss of his sister (and himself) only among the fireflies.