A Japanese brother and sister (Tsutomu Tatsumi and Ayano Shiraishi) struggle to survive the end of World War II in Studio Ghibli’s only 12A-rated feature.
Isao Takahata’s (Pom Poko, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya) Ghibli debut was originally released alongside My Neighbour Totoro in 1988, a double-bill akin to pairing Finding Nemo with Jaws. Granted they feature similar characters (an adorable young girl and protective older sibling), but Grave of the Fireflies has no flying cat bus to whisk them away. In fact the only things flying are the American planes firebombing Japan’s wooden structures and devastating its cities, and the glowing fireflies foreshadowing the nuclear disaster to come.
This makes the historical drama a starkly realistic anomaly in the studio’s fantastical oeuvre, though not without its cute passages. Takahata does not dwell on suffering anymore than the children can afford to, yet even the lighter moments are tinged with the sadness of inevitability. Ghibli’s well-documented love of food takes on new meaning as starvation sweeps the land, its effects realised without sugar-coating. Grave of the Fireflies (a brilliant title) positions the kids as two of many, displaced by forces they cannot see and dismissed by those they do.
Where the film differs from many war pictures is in its unflinching child’s-eye view. We are always looking up at raining bombs and neglectful grownups, or honing in on the insects dancing across multihued blades of grass at a level of detail only recognisable from hours of study as children. The animation is incredible, its depth irradiated by the fading light of dying fireflies. Decades later the movie sears the heart, its emotional embers burning in colours undimmed. The closest Disney has come is Bambi, with the traumatic sight of Will Smith’s Genie a close second.