Directed by Isao Takahata, Featuring the voices of: J Robert
Spencer, Rhoda Chrosite, Veronica Taylor and Amy Jones. Animation, Japan, 1988, approx. 90mins, cert 12.
Based on Akiyuki Nosaka’s semi-autobiographical novel, writer/director Isao Takahata’s 1988 Studio Ghibli anime focuses on 14 year old Seita and his 4 year old sister Setsuko, and their desperate struggle to cling to life and hope amidst the scorched ruins of a firebombed Japan in 1945.
With father away serving with the Japanese navy, Seita and his little sister live with their unwell mother in the city of Kobe. During a devastating air raid by US forces, the two children are separated from their mother and upon emerging from the dust and smoke are confronted with a decimated landscape. Forced to flee the rubble they initially escape to the countryside to stay with an aunt. Tensions soon mount as food supplies become scarcer and Seita takes the decision to leave their aunt and seek refuge on their own. Alone, they face an arduous struggle for survival.
Not an obvious choice of subject matter for an animated film then.
This is a profoundly moving and truly unforgettable piece of filmmaking. It fully deserves its status not only as classic anime, but also as one the greatest war films ever made. The depiction of the horrors of war are presented with searing honesty and without overwrought manipulation. Director Takahata himself experienced an air-raid when he was 10 years old and this clearly infuses the bombing sequence with a chilling level of authentic detail. The awful 'beauty' as the glowing firebombs fall from the sky, the eerie silence before the flickering flames of the incendiary devices burst into deadly life and rip through wooden homes without mercy are images which seer straight to the minds-eye and linger.
Although Seita and little Setsuko’s plight is heart wrenching, director Takahata takes time to pause from the inevitable bleakness and gives the children precious moments of innocent pleasure and beauty. Running on a sandy beach and paddling in the sea. Sharing a bath, Seita uses a piece of cloth to create an air bubble which splashes a giggling Setsuko. And of course we have the magical glow of the fireflies, caught in numbers to illuminate their abandoned sheltered hide-out. These gentle bitter sweet scenes stand out like sun rays bursting through the storm clouds of war.
This is not an anti-American film. The B-29 bombers that drop their deadly cargo are of course US, but the film is not about apportioning blame, but instead about the loss of innocence and the consequences of war.
Originally released in Japanese cinemas as a Studio Ghibli double-bill with the charming MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO, audiences understandably gravitated toward Miyazaki’s sweet fable compared with its more challenging and provoking accompaniment. (The intention was for TOTORO to be the soothing second feature balm, I can only imagine the impact if the audience had watched FIREFLIES after TOTORO). I freely admit I sobbed uncontrollably at the closing image. But this is a film everyone should see. It may not be one you can easily revisit time and time again, but even if you only watch it once, you will never forget it.
*****(out of 5*)