The Stewed Plums of Wrath
One of the things I love about Japan is that the unique nature of the country's history has left it with an equally singular and distinctive culture. Quite simply, many of the normal rules and attitudes do not apply; they have a unique attitude to censorship, for example, with ultra-violent early Steven Seagal movies turning up on TV as a weekday matinee. In Japan, too, it is much more acceptable for a serious fim-maker to come up with a drama about giant monsters on the rampage (which probably explains why Japan does this kind of movie better than any other country in the world). Having said that, one still occasionally comes across an example of this cultural idiosyncrasy which brings one up short and may in fact provoke a jaw-droppy-open moment. I can just about imagine a film-maker from another country making a bleak drama about two children, orphaned and made outcasts by a major war, slowly starving to death – but doing it as a cartoon?! The stuff of Disney this is not.
Yes, it is Isao Takahata's celebrated 1988 movie Grave of the Fireflies, currently enjoying a limited re-release for its 25th anniversary (showing in some places in a double-bill with My Neighbour John Turturro, not that I caught that one I'm afraid). Although a product of the famous Studio Ghibli, this film is a world away from the usual whimsical fantasy: instead it is a relentlessly bleak and even grim story, utterly up-front about its intent to mess with the viewer's emotions.
This is established very early on as the central character, a teenaged boy named Seita, announces the circumstances of his own death, shortly after the conclusion of the Second World War: he died of starvation while homeless and living in the main railway station of the city of Kobe. We see his spirit reunited with that of his sister Setsuko, who's not much more than a toddler, and the rest of the film proceeds to show us the circumstances leading up to their passings.
As the story proper opens, the children are preparing to flee an American air-raid, which duly arrives: the resulting firestorm destroys their home, along with much of the rest of the city. But even more seriously, they are separated from their mother in the chaos and when they find her she has been horrifically injured in the bombing and dies shortly afterwards. With their father away in the navy, they are effectively now orphans, and are forced to rely on the hospitality of distant relatives to find food and a place to stay.
From here, by tiny increments, life gets harder and harder for the children: their reserves of food run out, they are forced to pawn their mother's possessions to buy more, their relationship with their aunt deteriorates to the point where they decide to move into a disused air-raid shelter, and so on.
Given the way the movie opens, it's never in doubt how things are ultimately going to play out, and the arc of the plot is relentlessly downbeat: there are lighter moments along the way, scenes of the children being able to enjoy their lives, but these are never much more than grace notes. The entirely twist- and reversal-free nature of the plot is very unusual, by the rules of conventional storytelling, and only adds to the impression that this isn't really intended as a piece of entertainment.
I generally have a problem with movies which set out to be really brazen tear-jerkers – they usually end up being so obvious and manipulative that they have no real purchase on my emotions. That said, if you have the slightest soft spot remaining in your heart, Grave of the Fireflies will ruthlessly seek it out and pierce it. I managed to last until the final few minutes before I actually Went, but Go I ultimately did.
Having said that, there's a thin line between being a tear-jerker, and – well, look, I overheard two people in the next row discussing their response to the film, and in particular trying to decide which section was the most depressing (there is obviously some competition). You can admire the artistry and naturalistic beauty of the animation and storytelling here as much as you like, because this is a superbly well-made film, but the fact remains that you're not going to come out of it whistling and with a spring in your step.
But is it more than just a tear-jerker? It's very difficult to avoid the conclusion that there is a further subtext to Grave of the Fireflies. There are potential difficulties here – it's easy to conclude that this is a film about the suffering of Japan at the end of the Second World War here – very much in line with the official position that Japan was a victim of the conflict, rather than an aggressor (it's also telling that the exact circumstances of the Japanese surrender are not gone into). As Philip French observed in The Guardian, 'seeing The Bridge on the River Kwai on TV a few hours later, I was reminded there's another side to this story.'
I think the film does just enough to avoid appearing over-simplistic in terms of its historical context: it's clearly more about the effects of war on the innocents caught up in it, than any particular situation. Also, the least sympathetic character in the English dub is the children's aunt, who is a fierce nationalist and constantly criticises their failure to contribute to the war effort – criticism of Japanese militarism is implicit.
On the other hand, the director himself has gone on record that he does not see this as an anti-war film – according to Takahata, the film takes a very conservative stance, depicting the various travails of the characters as a consequence of their rejection of society and the responsibilities that go with it. This element is there in the film, certainly – it's Seita's refusal to swallow his pride and apologise to his aunt that's presented as the ultimate cause of the children's tragedy – but it does get swamped by the enormous compassion and pathos present throughout the rest of the story.
I suppose that digging around for subtext and deeper messages in Grave of the Fireflies is almost willfully perverse, given the basic story of the film is so simple and so strong. It's true that the movie achieves what it sets out to do: in this respect, if no other, it's something of a masterpiece. And yet it's also so obviously not simply a piece of entertainment that one has to wonder about the motives of its makers.