SYTYCR Round 2.4: The Honorary Swede VS. Botch Casually (GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES)

by Nick Jobe · August 11, 2012 · So You Think You Can Review · 4 Comments

Alright, moving on to the next actual battle. Today, we’re looking at the most depressing animated film ever made, Grave of the Fireflies. In this battle is The Honorary Swede, who took the first round in his review The Quick and the Dead. Against him is Botch Casually, who won his first battle with another animated film, The Little Mermaid (Note: funnily enough, both winners of the Round 1 animated film reviews moved into Round 2 with animated films yet again). So who will win? Read, vote, comment, enjoy! You have until Monday. Below is the updated bracket. Click to make it bigger.

Review #1
By The Honorary Swede

The film begins with the protagonist, Seita, telling us: “September 21, 1945. That was the night I died.”  With these brief words, we understand much.  It is after the war, but not so far removed that the effects are still not felt.  And we immediately know – Sunset Boulevard-style – that our main character will meet his end.  And what an untimely end it is, because he is a young boy, perhaps not even a teenager.  And he is dying alone, forgotten, and starving in squalor.  Around him, the country is trying to move on, ashamed of his presence there reminding them of recent horrors and defeat.
Things become even more grim as Seita perishes before our eyes and we drift into flashback… and we realize that he has a younger sister, Setsuko.  A cherubic girl of roughly 4 or 5, filled with laughter and curiosity, we are acutely aware that Setsuko was not in that dire opening image.  With the tone set by the intro, we watch Seita guide Setsuko through the final months of the war, uncomfortably wondering how and when she will be separated from her older brother.
Seita does his best to shield Setsuko from the terrible realities of their situation.  He makes mistakes, bad decisions.  Of course he does, he is a child.  The dynamic of kids fending for themselves in adult situations is not new (see also Night of the Hunter or Forbidden Games) but it’s always refreshing when a film allows the children to have the wisdom of children and not be preternaturally equipped for the occasion.  Seita has a hard enough time just attending to Setsuko’s primal human needs, which she vocalizes as a child is wont to do – I am hungry, I need to pee, there’s something in my eye.  Just acquiring basic nutritional sustenance is difficult for a child with no resources, especially during wartime rationing.  Most of what he knows about the world is gleaned from overheard conversations. To expect him to properly gauge and navigate complex adult social dynamics is asking too much.  One should not criticize Seita too harshly for his lapses in judgment, but understand that he never should have been put in that situation in the first place.  Such is the devastating cost of war, and no country – aggressor or not – should have to suffer it. 
It’s been quite some time – over 10 years – since I last watched Grave of the Fireflies.  It’s not a movie your heart yearns to return to.  No, it’s not as bluntly horrifying as other Japanese films about the awful damage of the war… say, Ichikawa’s brutal Fires on the Plain, the earlier anime Barefoot Gen, or Imamura’s bleak Black Rain.  You are not constantly being pummeled with disturbing imagery.  But always a cloud of doom lingers over the picture, the tragic fate tainting even the sweetest of moments (and sometimes in the actuality of the narrative as well, as when Setsuko discovers a corpse on an otherwise joyous trip to the beach).  A montage of a little girl playfully amusing herself becomes one of the saddest things you’re likely to see.
Studio Ghibli is spoken about in respectful, loving terms, and rightfully so.  The animation house is known for producing original, emotionally resonant and often charming works with universal appeal (“anime for people who don’t like anime” is a common phrase).  The name most readily associated with Ghibli is Hayao Miyazaki, whose films – mostly superb, intricate, offbeat adventures – make up almost half of the studio’s output.  But one might forget that Fireflies, although one of Ghibli’s most renowned, is not a Miyazaki movie.  It’s the first Ghibli feature by Isao Takahata.  Takahata’s future Ghibli productions would become increasingly lighter in tone, from the nostalgic Only Yesterday to the oddball fantasy Pom Poko to the comic strip-esque My Neighbors the Yamadas.  It’s no wonder that after Fireflies, he would want to move further away from such mournful material.
The animation is of consistently high quality, emphasizing the nuances of movement, particularly human physicality.  Setsuko doesn’t shake a candy tin the same way Seita does.  Her short limbs, still plump with baby fat, operate as one expects short, fat limbs to move.  The images are sometimes disturbing, sometimes beautiful, and always artful.  We don’t need it pointed out to us that the fireflies are reminiscent of the firebombs that so profoundly influenced Saito’s life… it is inherently present in the images.  Scenes in one time will bleed and blend into moments from other times, an elegant merging of a pleasant memory with a harsher one.  Takahata’s Only Yesterday demonstrates a distinct Ozu influence, and you can see traces of it here as well, in the use of “pillow shots” to transition between scenes.
One advantage of animation over live action is control over performances.  Child actors can be problematic, coming off as too precious, too precocious, or just plain annoying.  Here we have two children who, despite being pencil and paint renditions, feel natural and alive and behave as children do.  The vocal performances are suitably childlike without being grating.
The music is occasionally too twee and tinkly, undermining the subtlety of the narrative with emotional button-pushing, but in general it’s done with restraint.  There is a heartbreaking usage of Amelita Galli-Curci’s “Home Sweet Home” near the end.
The film as a whole usually manages to sidestep cheap sentimentality.  It is sentimental, but in ways that rarely feel manipulative or unearned.  It is matter-of-fact (but not distant) about the events unfolding.  Grandiose, sweeping drama is not required, the sorrowful truth of it is embedded in the small gestures, in the love Seita has for Setsuko, and his struggle to perform in the parental role thrust upon him, unfair as unfair can be.  It may or may not move you to tears, but it should stir something up within you.  Rating: Very Good (86/100)
Review #2
By Botch Casually
Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Currently ranked at #110 on the user-voted list of the IMDb Top 250, with an average rating of 8.3/10 as of this writing, I suspect Grave of the Fireflies needs little introduction. Conceived originally as the historical/educational half of a double feature and paired with another early and popular effort from Studio Ghibli, My Neighbor Totoro—yes, the two could only be seen in the company of one another in their original release—Grave of the Fireflies has since gone on to occupy its unique position in cinema and animation history as one of the saddest and most powerful features of its kind. Nothing comes close unless you start to consider live-action pictures and even there it stacks up pretty well.

I like it too. The temptation always is simply to erupt with superlatives, but in terms of its cultural impact I’m not sure it can be overstated. Without Grave of the Fireflies you don’t get the incinerator scene in Toy Story 3, for one example (or, also from Pixar, the first 10 minutes of Up). The closest analogue might be Art Spiegelman’s Maus, which similarly took a vastly underestimated medium (comic books, as opposed to cartoon features) and made practically unprecedented strides in legitimizing it once and for all. Interestingly, they both accomplished this feat by grounding their stories in that great legitimizer of the 20th century, World War II.

As narrative, Grave of the Fireflies is what it is: set squarely in the literary tradition of realism, calculated and unflinching in its depiction of civilian life in wartime. It is easy enough to understand the impact when the basic elements are arranged and considered: war, death, human failing, privation, and ultimately starvation. But it’s harder to prepare oneself for the extraordinary experience of seeing it. The 88-minute animated feature alternates effortlessly between beautiful cartoon fantasy set pieces, horror movie dynamics in the guise of scenes of war, and a tiny, wrenching story of a virtually anonymous pair of children destroyed even as we watch.

There are no surprises here. The first line of the movie is spoken in voiceover by the 12-year-old brother, Seita: “September 21, 1945. That was the night I died.” It sets many things in motion all at once: the story of how the children died, the emotionally oppressive atmosphere of the movie, and the sense it bears of intricate flashbacks nested inside one another. Everything in this movie has already happened even before we see anything. It is all mediated by perception, memory, and sadness. It gives us that distance, at least.

With World War II winding down, a Japanese family tries to cope with the brutally annihilating air raids of the Allied forces in 1945, then pressing their advantage with punitive fury as they found themselves close to winning the war. The father of the family is away in the military. The mother is plagued with nagging health problems. Besides conventional bombing, they also endure fire-bombing air raids that obliterate whole swaths of towns, villages, and cities, burning them and their residents to cinders. (The nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki go unremarked in the movie.) One such attack leaves the mother dying and then dead, with Seita and his six-year-old sister, Setsuko, left to fend for themselves. They can’t, ultimately.

The cinematic  tools Grave of the Fireflies uses so masterfully are already present in its opening shot and scene: the stark, almost expressionistic way that it uses shadows and places its figures, the elliptical, sometimes confusing way that it moves in time, and the color palette, which pervasively skews to the warm end of the spectrum, with browns, oranges, yellows, and reds. It often feels suffocating and hellish. It is suffocating and hellish, let’s be clear about that. There are also scenes filled with great natural light and color, and characters filled with joy—the good times, or the fantasies, where hope dwells stubbornly—but they are there for the contrast as much as anything. In one typical scene, Seita and Setsuko enjoy a beautiful and fun day at the beach. Then they find a corpse.

On some level it’s undeniable that the picture is heartless about making one care for two people—two children, no less—and then destroying them almost casually. Worse, it is realistic about how the children handle their circumstances. We see it always from their point of view, but we also see that they think like children and make bad decisions. One feels utterly helpless watching things go from bad, which is approximately where the movie starts, to worst imaginable, which is approximately where it ends. There’s nothing to do except weep.

So on some level, yes, that may be suspect—pure manipulation intended merely to wring tear ducts. But I think the clue to its most profound intentions—and, indeed, achievement—is in the title, in one of its pervasively recurring images and reflecting themes: the firefly, a bumbling insect, easily destroyed, but with a magical quality of lighting up the dark. “I can see you now,” Setsuko gasps in one of the best scenes, when Seita lets them loose at night in the shelter they share. In just that way, Grave of the Fireflies makes me feel I can see Seita and Setsuko now, even in the darkness of (fictional) death and time passed. Even just the image of Setsuko’s face, such as the first time we see it here, encountering her again seeing this movie again, can give my stomach a little knot of affection, trepidation, and sorrow. I know what’s coming, and I’m happy for the time I get with her.


Now Vote!



4 Responses to SYTYCR Round 2.4: The Honorary Swede VS. Botch Casually (GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES)

  1. Dan says:

    Nice job from both writers! I felt like The Honorary Swede’s post was a bit long and spent a lot of time on the plot. However, it also made some great points, especially about Setsuko. I felt nearly the same way about Botch Casually’s review. The difference was in the opening. Botch had a bit of a rough start to the review. There were strong points, but the structure wasn’t as smooth as the Swede’s, who got my vote. It was very close.

  2. Bubbawheat says:

    Already here in the second round it seems like the reviewers are bring their A games, making it tough to choose between the two. The Honorary Swede’s was quite long, but I could tell they know quite a bit about anime in general. I thought it was a little bit of a stretch in Botch Casually’s review to bring up the Pixar movies. In the end, my vote went to the Honorary Swede.

  3. SJHoneywell says:

    So strange that there are so few votes on a weekend battle.

    This one should have been closer–both of these reviews are excellent.

  4. Nick says:

    Yeah, I’m super disappointed at how the voting in this battle turned out.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.