Grave of the Fireflies
Studio: Studio Ghibli (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away)
Writer: Based on the novel by Akiyuki Nosaka
Genre: Drama, Anti-War, Semi-Autobiographical
Release date: April 16, 1988
Runtime: 88 minutes
Without a doubt, Grave of the Fireflies is one of the saddest anime ever. It tells the semi-autobiographical story of two children struggling to survive in World War II Japan. Seita, a teenage boy, is left to care for his younger sister Setsuko after their father dies in the war and their mother is killed during Allied firebombing. The two are left to fend for themselves in a chaotic wartime environment rife with desperation. Setsuko becomes ill, and Seita is left to provide food and shelter for the siblings in a country which has become unsafe with crime and sustained bombing. Viewers need not be Japanese or particularly anti-war to feel the unbelievable power of this film. It does not focus on the war at all, rather, its meaning focuses on the personal experiences of Seita and Setsuko and the inability of wartime Japan to protect them from tragedy. In all likelihood, Grave of the Fireflies will make you bawl on the ground.
The film's beauty lies in the incredibly human way it captures the lives of the two siblings. Its ability to deliver solid meaning is hindered by the clunky 1980s animation it was created with. The characters and their environment don't particularly look real at all, but miraculously, they feel not only true to life, but in some ways more real than a videotaped film. Very little happens in the anime; there is virtually no action, and the plot advances slowly and deliberately, despite a short 88 minute runtime. But no second is wasted. Every single emotion, every line of dialogue between Seita and Setsuko imparts a whole range of what it must have felt like to live in wartime Japan. A delicate score helps to round out the film's deeply meaningful, symbolic use of visual imagery. All in all, Grave of the Fireflies is a traumatically real depiction of a terrible time in Japanese history. Its ability to captures such emotional depth from a real historical period makes it undoubtedly an animated masterpiece.