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War: a child's perspective 

A review of Grave of the Fireflies

Grave of the Fireflies (NR)
Central Park Media

On a weekly basis since American bombs began falling in Iraq, we hear brief news accounts of a family displaced by the bombing, a neighborhood destroyed, a school or a hospital obliterated. But rarely do we get any real insight into the experience of being displaced by bombs from the point of view of the children affected.

That is why this stunning piece of Japanese anime, made in 1988 at the legendary Studio Ghibli, is so important now.

Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no haka) tells the story of Seita, a teenage boy, and his 4-year-old sister Setsuko in the Japanese port city of Kobe in 1945, during a relentless air blitz by American planes. Napalm bombs fall to the ground with little white flags waving from their tails, and then explode into huge cannon blasts of fire, burning everything in their path. Early in the film Setsuko and Seita's mother is badly burned in an attack and dies shortly thereafter. Her horrified son, now officially Setsuko's caretaker since their father is at sea with the Japanese navy, must swallow his grief and figure out how to feed and shelter his little sister while protecting her from the news of their mother's death. Their suburban home, in fact their entire section of town, has been flattened by bombs.

The children live with their aunt for a short time, but her anger at having two extra mouths to feed becomes unbearable and they leave, finding shelter in a hillside cave outside of town. By now, Setsuko has become visibly weakened by hunger but her spirit remains as bright as the fireflies that fill their sleeping chamber at night.

The film is deliberately apolitical; that these are American planes is beside the point. Human cruelty is evoked in the character of the aunt and her self-centeredness. The bombers are faceless mechanical invaders.We understand that both bravery and cruelty are inextricable human traits. What is at stake in Grave of the Fireflies are courage, fortitude and frailty, the opposing forces of survival.

Director Isao Takahata partnered with animator Hayao Miyazaki on Grave of the Fireflies and Miyazaki went on to make Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, Japanese animated films that have earned wide distribution, critical raves and strong box office revenues in the United States.Hopefully their popularity will draw home viewers to the DVD and video versions of Grave of the Fireflies, a film that critic Roger Ebert includes on his list of the most important war films of all time.

Animation might seem an odd choice for this kind of material. But the quiet emotional impact of this film would be blunted in a realistic depiction. The bombs rain silently on Kobe in Grave of the Fireflies; the explosions, like everything else, are distilled to their essential human and earthly impact. Seita and Setsuko look like cartoon characters with their spoon eyes and stunted bodies, but the viewer soon begins to focus on the sounds of their voices -- brother and sister interacting the way brothers and sisters do. The backdrops resemble classical 19th century Japanese landscapes, lush and eerily colored. Moments of silence imbue this film with an unshakable meditative quality.

When my three sons and I watched Grave of the Fireflies together in our crowded TV room, not one word was spoken for the 88-minute duration. No one moved. Imagine a classroom of students paying quiet tribute to the subtle human effects of saturation bombing. That is the potential of this startling, beautiful film for a generation of viewers newly introduced to the reality of war.

--Kathryn Eastburn

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