Hotaru no Haka/Grave of the Fireflies(1988) - A Review of Isao's Takahata Master Piece
Hotaru no Haka or Grave of the Fireflies is Ghibli film directed by Isao Takahata, and one of the best war movies to be ever done.
It tells the story of little Setsuko and her older brother Seita in the midst of Imperial Japan in World War II.
Story and Style
Grave of the Fireflies wasn't really a story per se. It's about two children, who apparently died. There wasn't anything else.
The story is written by Isao himself and it tells the tale of Seita (the older brother) and Setsuko (little sister) trying to survive the circumstances of war. It is a simple story.
It is Setsuko and Seita that give life to Isao's Japan, and although their lives constantly change we can see that they do not. Their mutual affection keep them alive, both physically from the famish and mentally from the misery and sorrow. They experience happiness and loss, always together, and even their lives end in unison.
Isao's composition of the brother and sister is delicate, and we experience the playful scenes of the beach and fireflies, where the scape from the war shows that those are just two little kids in the midst of chaos and suffering. We see, with the same stylistic intensity, their hardships, suffering and daily challenges to survive.
Isao is delicate in style. There are infinite moments where he could have played into the over drama, and the emotional, but he rather let it play by itself and we are never offered more than what it is actually there in the frame. We are given time to observe the characters and their world; We have moments of silence to think and reflect, and experience everything that the characters are experiencing. Patience gives the pace of the movie and much more than that, it gives a general feeling.
I had to try to get the audience to experience the experiences and lives of these two little children and the circumstances they were in. That's why I decided to emphasize the details.
Details are what Hotaru no Haka is made of in its core, and from every detail Isao adds meaning and emotion.
The realistic touch of Isao is even more noticeable as music is seldom played in the movie, and sound itself is much lighter than in any other war movie you ever saw.
You never feel it's real even when you're bombed with fire bombs. It's burning bright, but you don't feel like the fire will spread. Fire bombs would be falling all over, but they don't really explode. Sometimes it looks like just the bombs themselves are burning. I reproduced this experience in the movie, especially the air raid scene in the daytime. It was sort of a quiet. A sort of a strange feeling. Previous Japanese war films didn't show that.
We can see how Isao's own personal experience during the war made a difference in his choices.
Most of the music is played during transitions, or at the end while we listen to Seita's words, and we barely notice the lack of soundtrack during the movie. To say that Hotaru no Haka is hypnotizing is a understatement as our attention remains unshaken from beginning to end.
In terms of style Isao diverges from Miyazaki's usual Ghibli movies and although you might not see it, you can feel it tremendously. Every little scene grows inside you without notice, crawling deeper into the heart, and when the film ends, it is devastating.
The animation is not particularly unique, and Isao comments in one of his interviews that they were very pressed on time so he couldn't develop the style he wanted for the animation. We'll never really know what Isao intentions were, but we can appreciate the one we have. The aspect of characters tend to be realistic and backgrounds and nature in general seems like watercolor drawings. They deepen the scenes, with the same silent beauty that Isao uses in almost every element.
Movement is given mainly to the focal points in the frame, which are usually the siblings Seita and Setsuko. Most of the background stays still, and all that emphasizes once again the nature of Hotaru no Haka as a very different war movie. It has very little of the action and fireworks, and explosions that we see so often, and instead it offers two lives that we follow closely detailed, with patience and time.
Many people asked why I started this project. "No one would see the film", they reasoned, and I understood what they meant. Still, I thought it had a meaning. I believed this type of project had a place in the world of animation. And people actually accepted it. I feel I had broadened the horizon of animated films, and in this sense, it's one of the most important works I've done. Personally, I hope to broaden my horizons further, so I'm still trying new things.
Isao's bravery has shown the world not only the power of animation, but its depth. Isao has left a legacy of works that will stand the tests of time. For the wonderful animations, visions, passion and creativity, we'll all remember thee.
Thanks Isao, we'll miss you!