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"Powerful", "moving", "touching", and "great" are words frequently used by people to describe movies, but this is one of the very few cases where they are most sincerely deserved. Roger Ebert, hardly known as one to heap undue praise on any movie, called Grave of the Fireflies "one of the greatest war movies ever made", and far from hyperbole, that's exactly the level of praise that accurately describes it. Simultaneously an allegory of human failings and a quiet but unflinching look at two children caught in the peripheral effects of a war, Grave of the Fireflies is one of the most painful and affecting movies you're ever likely to see, animated or otherwise. In many cases, the fact that it is animated gives simple actions and scenes a beauty and innocence that would not have existed otherwise, creating all the more contrast with the harsh and painful realities experienced by the characters.
On that subject, note that although Grave of the Fireflies was produced by Studio Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki's studio, this movie was not a product of the mind of Miyazaki, and it shows; the visual style might be familiar, but Kiki's Delivery Service this is not, and you should brace yourself before you start watching. It is in some ways uplifting in its portrayals of simple beauty in the darkest of situations and the strength of the human spirit, but although it never resorts to heavy handed tragedy or melodrama, this tale of two children standing up in the face of adversity and slowly falling victim to a host of human fralties--suspicion, predjudice, and pride--is unsparing and deeply tragic from start to finish.
At first glance, one might get the idea that Grave of the Fireflies is some kind of anti-American propaganda. In truth, as mentioned above, it is nearly the opposite. Although the children fall victim to the hardships brought on by the war, no Americans ever show up, and they are rarely mentioned. If anything, on one level, this movie could be seen as a metaphor for the entire country of Japan during the war: fighting a loosing battle, and too stubbornly proud to admit defeat and reach out. Similarly, it can be seen as a condemnation of pride; the story is based on a semi-autobiographical novel written by a man who survived the war on the homefront, but whose younger sister died of starvation while in his care. On that level, it may have been a sort of catharsis, harshly depicting the result of Seita's unwillingness to seek help or resort to theft to obtain food, and ultimately allowing his grief to consume and punish him--something that never happened to the real person--for that decision. Metaphor and symbolism aside, the enemy in this movie is painted as the kind of human weaknesses that come from and even create war: pride, the suspicion that falls upon two children trying to live on their own, and the prejudice leveled against a healthy young man who doesn't want to fight.
Above all, though, the enemy of this story is war--you never see a battle or an army, but you can see the tragic effects of war on even the idyllic countryside far removed from the front. Grave of the Fireflies puts a human face on the civilian population of Japan during the war--something not many movies have done, and none have done as well. Moreover, it manages to do so in a painful and realistic, yet still understated, manner. In fact it is almost too painful to watch, but equally difficult to take your eyes off. All this, and it is animated--anyone who thinks animation can't tell a realistic story with any impact has never seen this movie, and should be required to do so.
Even on the level of pure visual craftsmanship, Grave of the Fireflies is a masterwork--the animation, though extremely subdued, is fluid and surprisingly realistic; just watching the everyday acts animated in this movie gave me a new appreciation of animation as an art form. Try taking the time to really watch the animation in a few scenes--you might be surprised. The art is not spectacular, but is well done, and has a slightly old-fashioned style that works well. Being by studio Ghibli, it is no surprise that the character designs are reminiscent of Miyazaki's.
Finally, there's the acting, which (at least in Japanese) is extremely good. Setsuko in particular is one of the most convincing pieces of acting for a child I've ever seen, and is completely believable as the age she is--neither too cute nor too articulate. The orchestral score rounds out the aural picture, providing emotional undertones without ever forcing or even encouraging a response--the movie itself needs no help with that.
Grave of the Fireflies is a touching and extremely painful movie to watch, but it's not an idle tearjerker. This movie is direct, honest, thought provoking, and worth watching by anyone. Just make sure you're ready for it before you start.