Takahata, having begun his movie by revealing to the viewer that both of his protagonists have died, proceeds to spend the remainder of its duration showing the path that took them to their ends. By so disclosing the fates of the two children around whom his film revolves, the director allows the viewer to interpret each event presented to him in the light of his awareness of their demise. The viewer is, consequently, made to see the pointlessness and sadness of every event depicted in the movie with a particular clarity. Each moment of the film, even if filled with bright flowers, shining blue skies, glowing fireflies, or childish laughter, brings the young siblings closer to their deaths. We know that all their struggles, all their joys, and all their efforts are for nothing.
Grave of the Fireflies is, not surprisingly, a difficult film to watch. The feelings of hopelessness and sorrow with which it is infused can be nearly overwhelming. Takahata has truly crafted one of the most affecting tragedies I have encountered in film. Over and over again, the director, by revealing the sufferings of his protagonists, and the lack of concern others have for the two children, brings to the viewer's attention the consequences of human cruelty, callousness, selfishness, and brutality. Having been so immersed in this dire universe of pain, the viewer is likely to be left utterly shaken by the feelings of profound anguish the film arouses.
What is more, the quality of the animation used in the movie is consistently impressive and greatly helps to bring out the emotions the director elicits. The character designs conform to the conventions followed at Studio Ghibli and are always attractive. The backgrounds are rendered in lush detail with watercolor paintings and are, without exception, remarkably evocative. By setting his tale of misery and death amid warm, vibrant colors, which contrast with the dreadful events being depicted, the director reminds the viewer how easily sadness can be intensified by a world whose beauty seems to mock those who suffer.
Despite its numerous virtues, I must concede that the movie is not without flaws. Sadly, Takahata often gives way to excessive sentimentality which, instead of adding depth to the feelings of dejection he has evoked with other techniques, infects the movie with a sense of falsity and, consequently, detracts from the potency of those feelings. For example, near the film's end, after Setsuko has died, the director includes a montage showing some of the happier moments of the young girl's life. While Takahata clearly meant for this sequence to enhance the viewer's sadness, it does not. The moviegoer is far more likely to feel manipulated rather than he is to feel touched.
Takahata has, nevertheless, fashioned in Grave of the Fireflies a painfully sorrowful and consistently lovely film that, although flawed, is still able to arouse a poignant sense of despair in the viewer.
Review by Keith Allen
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