Studio Ghibli is not all soot sprites and fire demons dubbed by Billy Crystal – indeed, Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies (1988) is one of the most devastating films you will ever see, anime or otherwise.
If you don’t know what to watch next, Grave of the Fireflies is available to stream on Hulu. The animated war film is based on the semiautobiographical short story of the same name by Akiyuki Nosaka. It stars Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi, Yoshiko Shinohara, and Akemi Yamaguchi.
Set in Kobe, Japan, around World War II, the movie opens September 21, 1945, with a teenage boy named Seita (dubbed by J. Robert Spencer) starving to death and his spirit joining that of his younger sister, Setsuko (dubbed by Corinne Orr).
Several months earlier, the two children are orphaned after a firebombing destroys most of Kobe and kills their mother (dubbed by Veronica Taylor).
Upon moving in with their aunt (dubbed by Amy Jones), Seita and Setsuko face the brutal reality of growing up as refugees in wartime Japan.
Studio Ghibli is known for its antiwar themes. For example, Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) is heavily influenced by the filmmaker’s childhood in postwar Japan.
Grave of the Fireflies is the dream factory’s most powerful tragedy, though, its young characters developed in such a way that only Ghibli would know how.
To be sure, it is because of the studio’s family-friendliness that Grave of the Fireflies is so mature and heartbreaking. Seita and Setsuko are childlike in a way that transcends across cultural as well as artistic boundaries.
That they are cartoon characters does not detract from their characterizations.
But the nationalistic, toxic masculine intent behind the picture sullies it somewhat. After all, Japanese audiences interpret Seita’s decision not to return to his aunt’s as a wise one, even though the consequences are deadly.
While there are cultural differences at play, Seita’s pride in himself as an imperial Japanese male should not be more important than life itself.
But intentionalism is a critical fallacy – there have been many filmmakers throughout history who did not mean to shoot unethical works but did so anyway – so the director’s interpretation is no less subjective than that of the viewer.