Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

aka Hotaru no haka

2016 #67
Isao Takahata | 90 mins | DVD | 16:9 | Japan / Japanese | 12

Grave of the FirefliesOne of the most praised animated films of all time, this Studio Ghibli feature tackles grim subject matter: it’s the story of Seita and his little sister Setsuko, a pair of Japanese children who are orphaned and eventually left to fend for themselves in the closing months of World War 2. It begins with Seita dying of starvation and joining the spirit of his dead sister, so you know it’s not going to end well. A Disney movie this is not.

It’s kind of hard to avoid the praise Grave of the Fireflies has attracted, which is why it ended up on my Blindspot list this year. It’s the third highest-rated animation on IMDb (behind Spirited Away and The Lion King), which also places it in the top 25% of the Top 250, not to mention various other “best animated” and “great movie” lists. I mention all this because I fear the weight of expectation somewhat hampered the film for me. It’s by no means a bad film, but, despite the subject matter, it didn’t touch me to the same degree as, say, My Neighbour Totoro (which, coincidentally, it was initially released with).

So where did it go wrong for me? Perhaps my biggest issue was with Seita and the choices he made. I guess part of the point is that he is still a child and so unable to adequately care for himself and Setsuko, but I don’t get why he resorts to stealing, looting, and allowing them to starve when, as it eventually turns out, they still have 3,000 yen in the bank — enough to buy plenty of hearty food when it comes down to it. Why didn’t he turn to that money much sooner? Why did it take a doctor telling him his sister was malnourished and refusing to help before he thought, “you know what, I could always use that money we have saved up in the bank to feed us so I don’t have to steal and nonetheless be short of food”? When he does eventually withdraw that cash and buy some decent supplies, it’s a very literal case of doing too little too late.

Another thing is that the film is often cited as a powerful anti-war movie, because it depicts the ravaging effects on innocents. However, director Isao Takahata insists it isn’t, saying it’s about “the brother and sister living a failed life due to isolation from society”. I’m inclined to believe him, because, from what we actually see on screen, these two kids are the only ones to be so badly affected! Okay, we do see people have died, and we’re told that food is running out… but there’s a gaggle of kids who seem to be having a fun day out when they stumble across the siblings’ makeshift shelter; or, right at the end, people who merrily arrive home and pop their music on. The film doesn’t try to claim that only these two kids suffered, but — aside from a few other destitutes at the start, and the bodies we see after the first bombing (later bombings don’t make any casualties explicit) — we don’t really see anyone else suffering. I’m not arguing that Takahata is saying no one else suffered, nor that these observations make it pro-war (I mean, any children dying, even if others are surviving, is not a good thing), but I didn’t get an anti-war message that was as powerful or as overwhelming as other viewers seem to have.

I’m an advocate of animation as a form (which must sound like a ridiculous position to have to take in some countries, but in the West “quality animation” begins and ends with Disney musicals and Pixar’s kid-friendly comedy adventures), but I think the fact this particular story is being told with moving drawings is detrimental. I’ve seen online reviews that say it makes the film more bearable because it creates a kind of disconnect from the real world — and, really, this story shouldn’t be “bearable”. That’s not to say you can’t feel an emotional connection to animated characters, but, as a medium, animation regularly deals in fantastical subjects, so with material this gruelling it does make it seem less real.

Despite these issues, Grave of the Fireflies does still pack a punch, but I wasn’t as bowled over as I’d expected to be.

4 out of 5

Grave of the Fireflies was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

100 Films v 2016: Month of March

Tell me — do you watch films?

You will.


Barely Lethal#45 Chappie (2015)
#46 Blackhat (2015)
#47 The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
#48 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)
#49 Barely Lethal (2015)
#50 The Book of Life (2014)
#51 Kill List (2011)
#52 Fast & Furious 7 (2015), aka Furious Seven
Lincoln#53 Beverly Hills Cop II (1987)
#54 Office Space (1999)
#55 Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)
#56 The Boxer from Shantung (1972), aka Ma Yong Zhen
#57 The Descendants (2011)
#58 One-Armed Swordsman (1967), aka Du bei dao
#59 The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (2015)
Batman v Superman#60 Bridge of Spies (2015)
#61 Scotland, Pa. (2001)
#62 Lincoln (2012)
#63 Brooklyn (2015)
#64 Turbo Kid (2015)
#65 Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
#66 The Color Purple (1985)
#67 Grave of the Fireflies (1988), aka Hotaru no haka


  • After sitting out last month, I got back to WDYMYHS in March with IMDb voters’ 7th favourite war movie, 5th favourite ’80s movie, and 3rd favourite animated movie: Studio Ghibli’s Grave of the Fireflies.
  • With Bridge of Spies coming out on Blu-ray, Lincoln premiering on TV, and The Color Purple being removed from Amazon Prime Instant Video, the last week of March turned into a bit of a Spielberg-athon for yours truly. I’m now just 3¼ films away from finally having seen all his features…
  • Value For Money Assessment, Part 4: adding 10 more films from Now TV to the 10 (plus the Oscars) from last month gives a final cost of £0.48 per film. I’d say that’s good value.


With 23 new films watched this month, March 2016 joins the elite pantheon of months to reach 20 films — it’s only the sixth ever, and the third this year. In the process, it became the 22nd consecutive month with a 10+ total; it leapt spryly over March’s previous best tally (2013’s 17); and it handed 2016 the record for earliest #50, on the 6th (besting last year’s 8th April). It raises the March average from 11 to 12.3, and nudges the 2016 average up a smidgen from 22 to 22.3.

And there I was thinking that 13 hours of Daredevil would knacker my film viewing. (As it is, I’m actually only 10 hours through Daredevil. It’s really good, though.)

I normally end this with a prediction for the rest of the year, but they feel increasingly meaningless. I mean, they’ve always been meaningless — they’re based on averages, which only hold true until they don’t — but I’m still intending to cut back on film viewing this year (at some point), so they’ll definitely go awry. That said, I’m also intending to maintain my 10-film-minimum for a second calendar year, meaning 2016’s final tally should be at least 157 films. And, frankly, I’m intending April and May to continue in a similar vein to these first three months; at least until I reach #100, anyway. Assuming I do get there in May (which will be a whole Thing that I’ll discuss at the time), 2016 will be looking towards 170+ films.

2015 has really recalibrated my notion of “a lighter year”…



This month: Bourne, Bond, and Ben Affleck twice.



The 10th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
Although a couple of fun action movies turned my head this month, none of them were fun enough to detract from the sheer class of Steven Spielberg’s collaboration with Abraham-Lincoln-pretending-to-be-Daniel-Day-Lewis-pretending-to-be-Abraham-Lincoln (last time I make that joke, promise) in Lincoln.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
My memories of it have softened a little in the four weeks since I watched it, but as it remains the only film this month that I’ve got down for a 2-star rating, the loser is Michael Mann’s disappointing cyber thriller Blackhat.

Winner of Batman v Superman
Wonder Woman.

Loser of Batman v Superman
Film critics, apparently. Or not.

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
This almost went to everyone’s favourite movie about a blind superhero*, but it was edged out by everyone’s second favourite filmed production of Shakespeare’s Scottish play starring an actor who’s also played Magneto** — Macbeth.

* It’s true! If you can find another one, I’ll retract that statement.
** OK, I’m certain some people prefer the Fassbender one to the old McKellen-and-Dench one, but acknowledging that fact would’ve ruined the mirroring structure of my sentence.


¾.

Blindspot: What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016

If you read enough blogs, you’ve probably seen Blind Spot lists/projects/whatever manifesting on them over the last week. For readers who don’t know what this Blindspot* thing is, it’s essentially “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen” by another name. For readers who don’t know what “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen” is, it’s essentially Blindspot with a more idiosyncratic name.

And if you have no idea what any of these words mean, I shall explain: you pick 12 films you’ve never seen but really want to / feel you should have / etc, then spend the next year watching one per month.

First: my 12 picks, in order of must-see-ness. Then, a few interesting (maybe) facts about them. After that, I’ll tell you how I picked them.


One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest




Grave of the Fireflies





The Pianist





12 Years a Slave





Barry Lyndon





Ben-Hur





The Maltese Falcon





Snatch.





The Sting





The Iron Giant





The Deer Hunter





Howl’s Moving Castle




A few facts about this year’s 12:

  • There’s a spread of 72 years between the oldest (The Maltese Falcon, 1941) and newest (12 Years a Slave, 2013). The latter is the most recent film I’ve yet included on WDYMYHS.
  • The 1970s make up 33% of the list. The 2000s are next with 25%. There’s one film apiece from the 1940s, 1950s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2010s.
  • The total listed running time is 27 hours and 3 minutes, making the average length of a film 2 hours and 15 minutes.
  • 58% of the list are over 2 hours long; 25% are over 3 hours! Only two are under 90 minutes.
  • The shortest is The Iron Giant (86 minutes), the longest is Ben-Hur (212 minutes).
  • Just one film this year is in black & white (it was 50/50 last year).
  • Just two aren’t originally in English… but as they’re anime, there’s a 50/50 chance I’ll watch them with the English dub anyhow.
  • This year features only the third animated film to make it in to WDYMYHS… and the fourth… and the fifth. Previously animation has made up 5.6% of WDYMYHS titles. This year it’s 25%.

Whereas other people just seem to choose their films, I have to turn it into A System. (I’m the guy who posts 3,000 words of statistics about his own viewing every year — what did you expect?) I must admit that I was feeling a bit uninspired this year though, so my system is nothing like as complicated as the last two years (which you can read about here and here, if you like).

Essentially, I decided I fancied achieving some more awards on iCheckMovies. So I looked at all the lists I was getting close on — “close” in this case being any with 12 or fewer films to the next award (because of the 12 films on this list, y’see). That came to 43 lists. 43! Going through them, I noted down any unseen films that I own or have ready access to. That came to 209 films, of which 110 were on more than one list. Even with 43 lists, the most prolific film (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) was on just 9, which I guess is testament to the randomness and wide-ranging spread of lists I was using.

Such low ‘scores’ meant the films were all ranked quite close together, so I also threw in that grand arbiter of film quality popularity, the IMDb Top 250, to see if it shook out a top 12. And, with the implementation of some familiar WDYMYHS rules, it did. Said rules were: no repeat directors (ta-ra, Amadeus and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind!), and that a WDYMYHS film I failed to see isn’t allowed on the next year’s list (cheerio, Princess Mononoke and City of God!)

At first I wasn’t quite sure about these selections, but having sat with them for a bit I feel better about them. As a whole group, they’re perhaps a bit more… mainstream (for want of a better word), and less quirky (for want of a better word), than my systems have generated in the past few years. Maybe that’s just a matter of perspective, though: there are two anime movies on there, and, though they’re both Studio Ghibli, I don’t know that we can call anime “mainstream” even now.

Anyway, there they are. Hopefully I’ll do better than 75% this year. Even if I don’t, getting round to seeing some of these is better than not getting round to any.


* No one can seem to agree if it’s one word or two. Regular readers will know how much this bugs me. ^