Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #179
Director: Isao Takahata
Starring: Rhoda Chrosite and J. Robert Spencer (English dub)
Released on the exact same day in Japan as fellow Studio Ghibli masterpiece My Neighbor Totoro, Grave of the Fireflies served to draw attention to the huge range of tones that studio's films can inhabit. While Totoro is arguably the most lighthearted, warm movie Ghibli has released, even demonstrating enough whimsy to successfully diffuse the long-term illness of the main characters' mother, Grave is the bleakest animated film I've ever seen. Unlike Totoro's matriarch who we can all imagine will pull through, Grave's is killed in a World War II bombing raid by American forces, and animator/director Isao Takahata takes great pains to show us her bandaged, bloodied corpse, and in a relatively quick take even shows maggots falling from her body, which has been baking in the hot sun. Hell, even the first shot in the movie sees the protagonist, Seita, introducing the story by saying he'll always remember the day that he died. Needless to say, Grave of the Fireflies is not a kids' film, animation studio be damned.
In the AV Club's excellent pop culture list compendium Inventory, a tome which I believe I've mentioned on here before and will undoubtedly mention again, there's a particularly interesting list of films too painful to watch twice. Grave of the Fireflies made the cut, which intrigued me enough to move it to the top of my Netflix queue – actually, I added every movie on the list that I hadn't seen to my Netflix queue if it wasn't there already; I guess I'm something of a cinematic masochist. Anyhow, the AV Club was right by including Grave on that list. Spoiler alert: All of the sympathetic characters die in horrible ways, and all of the asshole characters who are mean to the sympathetic characters in their time of need live. It's a bit manipulative, sure, but it's still incredibly powerful and, yes, at times difficult to watch. So much life is injected into these relatively simply drawn characters (Takahata has a far less extensive palette than fellow Ghibli luminary Hayao Miyazaki) that we can feel the pain that they feel throughout the film. As an American, I also find it interesting to watch a Japanese World War II movie where the enemy is the U.S. bombing squadrons. It's not wholly condemning – I have a feeling Takahata would agree that teaming up with Hitler and Mussolini was a bad thing to do for his country – but it's a different perspective than I'm used to, even with movies like Letters to Iwo Jima made by American directors trying to discover the opposing viewpoint.
To close, I'll make the inevitable but unfair comparison one more time and say that I definitely like My Neighbor Totoro better than Grave of the Fireflies. Is Grave the "better" film? Possibly. But, as the AV Club list claimed, I can't see myself watching it again. Its atmosphere is so oppressive and devoid of bright moments, not to mention its art is (necessarily) so much less engrossing that I'll never be able to prefer it to Totoro. However, I am glad I watched it. Roger Ebert has called it one of the greatest war films of all time, and perhaps he's right. Takahata shows us the pain of the greatest conflict of the 20th century through the eyes of the "enemy" as well as through the eyes of children, and that dichotomy leads to most of the film's biggest revelations. It's unlike any other movie I've seen, and I can hardly imagine another animated movie being as visceral and powerful. If only I could bring myself to watch it again.
The Good: The tone is oppressive as hell, but that was its goal, and it succeeds.
The Bad: I can't help but wonder what it would look like if Miyazaki had animated the same script. It might suck, but on the off-chance that it didn't, I'd gladly watch.
The Skinny: Deserves its spot.