Monday, August 24, 2015

YouTube Finds :: Viewer Seeking Grief Counselling After Blindly Walking into Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

I've been struggling the past few days over exactly whose idea it was to watch Grave of the Fireflies (1988) before going to bed late Friday night heading into early Saturday morning. The evening had begun with a successful excursion to the local brick 'n' mortar video store that didn't have the film I was looking for but yielded two used Miyazaki DVDs instead, which were happily plugged into the usual buy one get one for a buck deal before heading home for a delightful evening of anime, starting with a first time viewing of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and a second viewing of My Neighbor Totoro (1988). And on such a high I was after I didn't want that sense of wonder to end. And what began with a desire to experience Spirited Away (2001) again, which failed because it wasn't streaming anywhere, and a last ditch effort to see if someone had uploaded it to YouTube also went for naught, ended there, in the search results, with a link to a subtitled print for Grave of the Fireflies.

Now, Grave of the Fireflies is a Studio Ghibli film but was directed not by Hayao Miyazaki but by Isao Takahata. And while I was aware of it and its somber reputation I had yet to experience it. And so, as the digital clock readout blipped ever closer to 3am, still riding high, I decided to give it a whirl. In the end, I do not regret this decision but ... yeah. As critic Roger Ebert put it, while other animated films connect with the viewer on some emotional level "they inspire tears, but not grief." I mean, it's not like I wanted to cry myself to sleep the other night. And do you all realize how hard that is to do with a mudhole stomped into your heart?

The story itself is fairly simple but gets more complicated when you stew on the dire consequences. It begins with an air raid on Kobe, Japan, as World War II entered its final act. Here, it focuses on teen-aged Seita (Tatsumi) and his four year old sister, Setsuko (Shiraishi), who lose their mother and their home in the fire-bombing. No. Wait. Check that. It doesn't begin there. No, it begins with Seita's death, alone, starving and abandoned in a subway station after the war has ended. When he passes, his ghost is reunited with Setsuko's, and these two spirits bare witness to what transpired that led us all here via flashback, which brings us back to that air raid and the slow but steady tragedy that follows.

Thus and so, from the very beginning, you know this is all going to end badly for all involved. But even though you know what is coming, the inevitability of it only made things worse. The film was based on the semi-autobiographical novella Hotaru no Haka (1967) by Akiyuki Nosaka, who lost most of his family to the firebombings, except for his little step-sister. In the film, Takahata, another air-raid survivor, follows Nosaka's narrative very closely as Seita and Setsuko try to get by. 

Things go relatively well at first, finding refuge with relatives, but this quickly falls apart when a vile and manipulative aunt siphons their rations and runs the children off. And though their meager existence in an abandoned bomb shelter that follows has a certain fairy-tale quality to it this fails to negate the fact that these two are suffering terribly from the effects of malnutrition and slowly starving to death. And met with indifference or hostility at every turn, both finally succumb. First Setsuko, which was so devastating I am honestly tearing up as I type this, and then, wracked with guilt over his failure, Seito.

According to several interviews Nosaka wrote the story to exorcise his own demons for failing his sister, who also starved to death during the war. For this he blamed himself. Seems while scrounging for food, he would often feed himself first and his sister second. In his tale, Nosaka's surrogate is the person he failed to be in his eyes. Others have noted how Grave of the Fireflies can be traced to the Japanese tradition of double-suicide plays. For "it is not that Seita and Setsuko commit suicide overtly, but that life wears away their will to live." And as things unravel, the viewer falls apart right along with them.

I honestly haven't had that severe of a five-alarm meltdown caused by any form of media in a long, long time. To be fair, Grave of the Fireflies is a truly beautiful film -- a beautiful film about ugly things. The quieter moments, the intimate moments, are what really get to you (the scene at the beach, Setsuko in general), giving the harrowing moments that much more impact (burying the dead fireflies). It is so beautiful and so ugly I am torn on whether to ever watch it and get wrought through that kind of emotional wringer again. I honestly don't know. It's also a hard film to recommend. But I will, here, and now, because after reading this you will know what you are truly in for -- unlike I was.

Who knows, in a couple of days, a week, a month, I might even turn on the film a little for being too calculated, too manipulative -- which I think it is, but the emotions are honest and not maudlin. But right now my own emotions are too raw, my reaction too volatile, to contemplate further. Begrudging kudos to all involved, especially to the voice actors. Gonna be a long time before I get Setsuko's joyous laughter and pitiable pleas scrubbed from my ear filters.

Grave of the Fireflies (1988) Shinchosha Company :: Studio Ghibli :: Toho Studios / P: Ryôichi Satô, Eiichi Takahashi / D: Isao Takahata / W: Isao Takahata, Akiyuki Nosaka (novel) / C: Nobuo Koyama / E: Takeshi Seyama / M: Michio Mamiya / S: Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi, Akemi Yamaguchi, Yoshiko Shinohara


Anonymous said...

The fact that you're able to string words together after going into this film blind is a marvel. I had much the same reaction to it, knowing full well what I was getting into (a great deal of deep breathing, watching in the middle of an afternoon, instructions to family to come in and get me if I wasn't heard from by a certain hour). It's about eight years since I saw it, and I still can't muster the willpower to make a second attempt. I salute you for your fortitude at even considering a re-watch.

W.B. Kelso said...

I'm kinda amazed the Ghibli matched this up with TOTORO for a double-feature. I inadvertently pulled that off by accident and going from that much whimsy and joy to that much direness and grief is too much for anyone to bear.

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