Movie Review: Grave of the Fireflies

After watching My Neighbor Totoro, I decided I had to watch Grave of the Fireflies next. I had first heard about it in Japanese class in high school as a very sad movie, but had never gotten around to watching it.1

火垂るの墓」, or Grave of the Fireflies, is another Studio Ghibli film—a relatively early one—but not created by Miyazaki Hayao or scored by Joe Hisaishi. So not like any of the other Studio Ghibli movies I’ve seen (all Miyazaki films). However…it was released as a double feature with My Neighbor Totoro, or rather the other way around, and so those two movies are linked for that reason.

If I had to summarize Grave of the Fireflies in a sentence, I would say it was The Boxcar Children except with everything going horribly wrong, and set in Japan in the final months of World War II. The (semi-autobiographical) story is about a brother and sister whose home is destroyed by American bombers. They are separated from their mother and treated coldly by their aunt, and have to make it on their own.

The trouble was…I never got attached to the characters, and the whole movie felt rather unpolished. When it ended, I told my brother I felt it was “not very good”, but what I meant was that it didn’t feel well-made, well-constructed. The music was now on, now off, but not usually ever just quietly in the background. The timing of the lines was strange, and cuts between scenes either happened too quickly or held on for an extra uncomfortable moment. The voice actors put very little emotion into their lines, and while I don’t know if that was intentional authentic stoicism and politeness (or cultural stoicism and politeness), it didn’t work for me. And even the boxcar children got jobs (spoiler)…though I guess it is different in wartime.

The thing that was probably most objectively objectionable was that a lot of the movie was telling, not showing. “Show, don’t tell” is a key storytelling tenant that holds in written fiction and stage pieces as well as on film. But here, when things happen, one of the characters has to explain it, or there’s narration, or there’ll be an extra camera shot to make sure we understand exactly what happened. Give the audience some credit! Okay, I guess it was marketed as a dark children’s film, but look how well that turned out. (IMDb says people left the theater after My Neighbor Totoro cause they didn’t want to end on a downer.)

Don’t get me wrong, this is a sad story. But the sadness happens because of the story, not because of the movie that’s showing it to us. There were a few good scenes that did make me feel sad, but you can’t just string sad moments together and call it a story.

I imagine several of you are going to comment about how I’m wrong, how this is one of the saddest movies ever, how it’s so poignant, etc. And given the rating on Rotten Tomatoes, maybe you’re right. So I can’t un-recommend this movie…but I really don’t ever need to see it again. And I thought there was a chance I might really like it.

Maybe the book is better.

  1. We did watch the live-action film 「世界の中心で、愛を叫ぶ」, or Crying Out Love, in the Center of the World, and I think that is the saddest movie I have ever seen, as well as one of my favorites. And it’s basically a standard K-drama romance plot (the whole wave was known as 純愛, jun’ai, in Japan; I wrote a paper on it). So…maybe I need to watch more sad movies? To improve my taste? ↩︎

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