火垂るの墓 Hotaru no Haka (Grave of the Fireflies, 1988)

As my Japan-themed week goes on, I need to be careful not to just review films nobody’s seen and can’t easily watch, so I’m turning to one of the major Studio Ghibli films, albeit one directed by its less-famous partner, Isao Takahata, who nevertheless is responsible for many of its great works like The Tale of the Princess Kaguya and My Neighbours the Yamadas. It’s a World War II-set film, and given it’s Japanese, you can imagine it’s hardly triumphal; in fact, it’s one of the more heart-wrenching animated films you can watch.


I put this on at home, more or less without thinking, after returning from a screening of A Hidden Life (2019) and it strikes me that they make a sort of thematic double-bill, both being stories from World War II that find empathy amongst the defeated peoples in that conflict. Nobody really wins in war, to a certain extent, but it’s very clear from this story of Seita and his sister Setsuko that it’s particularly difficult trying to survive near the end of the war, when resources and empathy are scarce. Of course, the elegiac, mournful aspect is set up right from the very outset, as this is a film narrated by a dead body, but even so it wrings out enormous amounts of pathos from its story, in which the fireflies of the title become a beautiful visual metaphor for a certain sort of transcendence that perhaps the two find which eluded them in life. It’s grim, of course, but suffused with light and joy and hope — and a keen graphic stylishness — even in its darkest moments.

Grave of the Fireflies film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Isao Takahata 高畑勲 (based on the short story by Akiyuki Nosaka 野坂昭如); Starring Tsutomu Tatsumi 辰巳努, Ayano Shiraishi 白石綾乃; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 17 January 2020.