Grave of the Fireflies

Grave of the Fireflies


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



6 August


US drops atomic bomb on Hiroshima, 1945

On this day in 1945, about ten days after the US, UK and USSR had threatened Japan with “prompt and utter destruction”, an American B-29 bomber, Enola Gay, dropped the nuclear bomb “Little Boy” on the port of Hiroshima in Japan. The bomb killed around 80,000 people immediately and a further 10,000-60,000 in the following months, through injury and radiation sickness. It destroyed around 70% of the city’s buildings. Three days later another bomb, “Fat Man”, was dropped on the city of Nagasaki, causing an instant 22,000 to 75,000 deaths. Six days after that Japan surrendered. The Second World War was over.




Grave of the Fireflies (1988, dir: Isao Takahata)

Animation is for kids, right? Not in Grave of the Fireflies it isn’t. Directed by Isao Takahata, it tells the story of the dog days of the Second World War from the viewpoint of two children who live in the port city of Kobe. Their fate is not to be caught up in the nuclear blasts that brought the war to an end. Instead they’re victims of one of the carpet-bombings of cities that preceded them, which produced firestorms that turned everything to cinder. Seita is a teenager and his young sister, Setsuko, is about five years old, and in the immediate aftermath of the bombing, which they have somehow survived, their first concern is what to do with their mother, who is covered in burns and in an emergency hospital. Nothing, is the answer, they can do nothing. So they head off to the home of an aunt, who is far from happy to see them and reluctant to feed them. After some weeks, the increasingly-starving Seita and Setsuko leave her house and head for the hills. What happens next we already know much of – because one of the opening shots of the film is of Seita lying dead, the entire story being relayed by his spirit in flashback. The original novel, by Nosaka Akiyuki, was based on his own experience of the carpet-bombings, when his own sister died of starvation, so there’s a strongly autobiographical element, as well as a determination not to yield to melodrama – here, the facts are strong enough. And the decision to animate has some relevance here too, universalising the characters to a great degree; though Akiyuki’s story is his own, more or less, there must have been many many more children in towns in Japan, and in wars before and since, who have been thrown into the simple struggle for survival – find somewhere safe to sleep, water to drink, food to eat. The animation isn’t a Pixar-style struggle towards a glossy realism, it’s flat, matte and stylised, clearly Japanese, the kid’s big saucer eye owing a lot to anime.
Takahata worked alongside the legendary Hayao Miyazaki at Studio Ghibli and is as aware of the power of the very simple moment to enthral and delight. He even has time for poetry in among some of the most harrowing scenes you’re ever likely to encounter in an animated film: the fireflies of the title dancing for Setsuko and Seita one evening delivering a moment of joy and optimism that’s short-lived.
But don’t get your hopes up about the future of these two unfortunates. They’re only drawings. The film, on the other hand, is surprisingly real.



Why Watch?


  • One of the best animated films ever made
  • Deals brilliantly with the aftermath of war
  • An outstanding example of great Studio Ghibli work
  • A reminder that the end of the war in Japan was about more than Hiroshima and Nagasaki


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Grave of the Fireflies – Watch it now at Amazon





1 July 2013-07-01

Elijah Wood in Maniac

Out in the UK This Week




Maniac (Metrodome, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur, the writers of Switchblade Romance, one of the most heart-pounding horror films of recent years, swing bloodily back to form with a remake of a 1980 slasher which takes lovely gentle Frodo (Elijah Wood), casts him as a Norman Bates-style homicidal mother’s boy and then sets director Franck Khalfoun to work filming his exploits as if from the killer’s point of view. Result: another brilliant horror film, touches of Silence of the Lambs, House of Wax, with an electropop sound that just makes it all the grimmer.

Maniac – at Amazon


Cloud Atlas (Warner, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Like an established rock act that realises the fans only want to hear the old stuff, the Wachowskis’ adaptation of David Mitchell’s novel is an attempt to deliver new material between reminders of what made them famous – The Matrix. And what a gigantic epic blancmange it is – six era- and genre-straddling stories that, in eco-friendly fashion, re-uses its doughty cast of Halle Berry, Tom Hanks, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess (all often disguised to the point of unrecognisability). “Pay it forward” is the idea – how a decisive act at exactly the right moment can have effects that ripple forward in time. In terms of ambition it makes The Matrix look small, though it’s less straightforwardly successful. Must be watched twice.

Cloud Atlas – at Amazon


The Guilt Trip (Paramount, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)

A dorky inventor (Seth Rogen) takes a road trip with his Very Jewish Mother (Barbra Streisand). She, as well as being generally post-menopausally hyperactive, has all the mother’s traits – an eye for a money-saving coupon, a desire to lick her hand and smooth his hair, a compulsion to avail herself of the complimentary continental breakfast if it’s offered as part of a motel deal. He, meanwhile, finds his “grown-up” act, on the road, in meetings, is falling apart under her beady eye. The Guilt Trip is a Babs film masquerading as a Rogen film. Those with long memories will even spot an oblique reference to the “but you’re beautiful” line that was obligatory in Babs films of yore – Yentl, Prince of Tides and so on. I think it’s there as a subliminal joke, because this is otherwise a very unegotistical, warm and charming film in which Babs gives herself wholly to the part of the mad matriarch, with Rogen increasingly standing back, the better to watch an old pro work.

The Guilt Trip – at Amazon


Oz the Great and Powerful (Disney, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)

So we all wanted to know the Wizard of Oz’s backstory, yes? No? Well here it is anyway, with James Franco as a circus huckster whisked off to Oz in a balloon, a twister helping him get there, Dorothy style. There he finds a yellow brick road, has lots of adventures, meets witches good and bad, Munchkins, flying monkeys. And every single time the film does something original, departs from what we already know about Oz from the Judy Garland Oz film, it loses buoyancy. I detect a lack of imagination, of boldness. Or possibly the film was made with nothing more than a determination to squeeze a few shillings’ worth of milky goodness from the cash cow. Things to like include Franco’s brassy performance, Rachel Weisz as a very bad witch and Michelle Williams as Glinda the Good, complete with see-through bubble. Mila Kunis – officially the hottest woman in the world – is unfortunately unable to warm up this cool, slow movie, though someone in the post-production department should be given a gong for their efforts to make Oz into some sort of approxmation of the Technicolor delight it was in 1939. I’m not saying they got there, but the task has at least been attacked with a bit of determination and attitude.

Oz The Great and Powerful – at Amazon 


Broken City (StudioCanal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Someone somewhere in the critic-sphere is probably giving Broken City three stars just for existing, because it’s hard-boiled and has Russell Crowe and Mark Wahlberg in it. But it’s a terrible film, a complete no-ball of a movie in which every single scene is familiar, every line of dialogue sounds like it was generated by a program set to deliver Elmore Leonard or James Ellroy by way of Raymond Chandler. So, yes, it’s a crime drama, set in a big bad city run by a big bad mayor (Crowe) who hires a busted cop (Mark Wahlberg), now working as a gumshoe, to help find the man who is tupping his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Unbeknown to the PI, he’s really being set up for a yadda yadda showdown which, when it comes, won’t raise even the beginnings of an “oh really?”. The film is directed by Allen Hughes, working for the first time without his brother (as the Hughes brothers they did The Book of Eli, so they do know how to do it) and is hamstrung by the bizarre decision to give Wahlberg a backstory which reaches back to the Jurassic era. When all we need to know is that he’s the man wearing Chandler’s “down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean” hat. Zeta-Jones again delivers one of those hoity-toity performances of spectacular unlikeability, confirming her as another reasonably reliable marker of a film that isn’t as good as it thinks it is.

Broken City – at Amazon


Fuck for Forest (Dogwoof, cert E, DVD)

Fuck for Forest, marketed coyly as F*ck for Forest, as if a “u” could bring down civilisation, is a documentary that’s half fascinating, half infuriating. It follows the antics of a German non-governmental organisation (NGO) made up of young attractive hippies whose MO is to make pornographic films, post them online, then use the money that punters pay to see them to fund their ecological projects. “Saving the planet”, as they put it. “Scratch a hippie, find a nazi” is one of those old sayings that’s always warms my cockles, so I enjoyed having my prejudices reinforced in the first half of this film, during which earnest young men with long hair would get their cocks out in the street in an attempt to get the foolish straights around them to adopt their “liberating moral values”. On the other hand, the collective does seem to mean what it says and practise what it preaches. They live by scavenging through bins for food, so that none of the money raised goes to waste. We’re not in Jimmy Swaggart territory. Cut to part two of the film, when the group head to the Amazon, where some of the €400,000 they have in the bank (there’s gold in them thar loins) is to be dispensed in Lady Bountiful fashion to the local natives. Except the natives don’t give them quite the reception they were hoping for. Compulsory viewing. For eco-evangelists and whatever you’d call the opposite.

 F*ck for Forest – at Amazon


Grave of the Fireflies (StudioCanal, cert 12, Blu-ray)

A remaster of one of Studio Ghibli’s most acclaimed works of animation, the story of the firebombing of the city of Kobe in 1945 from the point of view of the spirit of a couple of kids who died in its aftermath. It has to be one of the grimmest uses of animation ever – the sort of darkness Tim Burton goes in for is candyfloss in comparison – a drama in which characters often aren’t motivated by the best intentions, where survival trumps all other impulses, where death seems to be round every corner. Happy viewing.

Grave of the Fireflies – at Amazon



© Steve Morrissey 2013