It’s nice to confirm a film’s notoriety, that yes City of God is as good as everybody says, yep Dune is as good as anything for putting you to sleep, and indeed, Grave of the Fireflies will make you cry.
Better take Roland Barthes’s (this podcast’s main man, apparently) word over director Isao Takahata, who doesn’t consider this to be an anti-war film, as Roger Ebert does. Takahata’s film in its cultural context is about family values, like the most depressing and violent Ozu movie ever devised.
For Takahata, Grave of the Fireflies is a much different experience. This is a film about the firebombing of Kobe during WWII, and how two young children attempt to survive — based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka. For western viewers, there might be guilt, but the movie is not seemingly about placing blame or pointing fingers. These kids don’t care about the politics of the situation, and neither does the movie.
Yet, the writer/director takes it a step further, insisting that the message of the movie is a cautionary tale against isolating oneself, and so the villainous aunt is actually the moral center. It’s so bizarre when the director’s interpretation is essentially opposite — but he’s not blaming the kids or pointing fingers, it’s just an unfamiliar approach to sympathy in characters.
In my interpretation, colored by non-Japanese culture, the escapism in the film, drawing on images of make-believe towns in the woods, is such a perversion of youth — that they’re forced to build their own futile society where the fun of childhood has not prepared them.
Grave of the Fireflies is high-concept to a degree — it hinges on a specific perspective and dramatizes a very real exercise of desperation and being pushed beyond limits. Contrast this movie with Angelina Jolie’s In the Land of Blood and Honey, which adapts Romeo and Juliet to the criminally rarely seen in film Bosnian War.
Such a thing might work, but that brief description matches the entire content of the movie, and has about the same effect. The characters are flat — it’s like a metanarrative of a play, where these people are playing out pre-determined roles. Jolie is a skilled director who produces shock and cringe-worthy moments. You’d think you wouldn’t need to do much to illustrate the horrors of war — in this case rape and other sexual abuse.
Both of these movies end in devastation, but Grave of the Fireflies drives its emotional center home with fully realizes characters, and doesn’t risk trivializing historical tragedy or politically alienating audiences.