When we watch animated films, we rarely think they may be autobiographical in nature. It isn’t the method most filmmakers first consider when conceptualizing someone’s story. It is too artificial, too unrealistic, too unrelatable. However, Grave of the Fireflies (1988) proves those assumptions are not always accurate.
Grave of the Fireflies is an anime film telling the story of two young Japanese siblings who become orphaned by American air raids on their village during World War II. After their home is obliterated and their mother killed, military combat ceases to exist on-screen. The story translates to one of survival, love, family, and offers social commentary on the nature of Japanese citizens as they struggled to survive. As it turns out, animation is the perfect way to convey the story. The intense and emotional style of the art allows the messages and weight of the story to be conveyed in precise, effective ways. Its success really doesn’t need argued -- anyone watching the film will be challenged repeatedly to hold back tears.
Roger Ebert wrote, “This film proves, if it needs proving, that animation produces emotional effects not by reproducing reality, but by heightening and simplifying it, so that many of the sequences are about ideas, not experiences… It belongs on any list of the greatest war films ever made.”
Grave of the Fireflies is based on a well-known Japanese semi-autobiographical short story written by Japanese author Akiyuki Nosaka in 1967. It is based on his experiences before, during, and after the fire bombing of Kobe in 1945.
Where The Long Tail Ends writes, “The novel is a guilt-ridden apology to Nosaka’s sisters, who died during World War II, as did Nosaka’s adoptive father. Survivor’s guilt and a sense of personal failure combine to make the book difficult to read on an emotional level, and the film, scripted by the director, keeps these themes, making it equally emotional viewing.”
As much as Grave of the Fireflies is an anti-war film and a critizism of Japanese nationalism during the war, it is a story about love. Though Seita, the film’s older character (and stand-in for Nosaka) fails to make all the correct decisions that would have saved his sister, there is no doubt that he loved her beyond compare. The bond between the siblings is powerful, and in apologizing to his sister through the story, Nosaka effectively lets her, and us, know how much he cared.