Grave of the Fireflies is an animated movie about the horrors of World War Two. It opens with a young man named Seita dying unmourned in a train station, and then it flashes back to how his life led to such a sad end. We never meet his father, whose Navy boat is sunk off screen, but we do see his mother die from burns she suffers when their city is firebombed. For the first few months after he is orphaned Seita does an okay job of providing for himself and his younger sister Setsuko, but as the war drags on supplies are harder and harder to get. I don't want to venture into spoiler territory, but let's just say that there's a reason why Setsuko isn't around in the first scene to mourn her brother, and that this reason is related to food shortages and rhymes with "she pies from pal tuition".
I see why Grave of the Fireflies has earned it's reputation as a tearjerker: it's about compelling characters who meet sad ends. The two siblings at the story's core have such a sweet bond and they share such endearingly delicate moments together that the movie doesn't feel overwrought, which puts it well ahead of a lot of other relentlessly tragic movies. But even though the film’s characters are handled with subtlety, the film’s plot is pretty heavy handed.
My problem is mainly with that first scene: starting the film with the death of the main character telegraphs the story's direction, so every further bit of tragedy felt expected, like just another stop on the world's least pleasant train. It doesn’t necessarily blunt the emotional force of the tragedy, but it does suck all the narrative tension out of the story. Yes, anyone who is going to watch Romeo and Juliet or Titanic (or other mid-90s movies where Leonardo DiCaprio dies) knows how the story will end even before it starts, but the inevitability of those character’s fates is just another way of making their fighting against the dying of the light feel more urgent. We want to suspend our disbelief and to hope against hope that maybe this time will be the time that things turn out differently. But that’s not an option here: that introduction does a pretty good job of warning us that we might not want to get attached to these characters because there is no way they are going to survive this movie.
Of course, narrative tension wasn’t what the movie was going for. Grave of the Fireflies is not about plot, it’s about characters and it’s about ethics. As I said before, the characters are well drawn, and it definitely conveys the necessary moral about how much suffering war creates. But after years of watching heavy hearted films I know that I will look for any excuse to keep them at arms length, and starting on such a defeated note was that excuse. If I had warmed to these characters first I would have been invested in them as their situation worsened, but by starting the movie on such a fatalistic note I immediately threw my guard up. It’s easier for me to care about someone who is in a hospital bed than it is to care about someone who is already in a grave.
Still, I can’t deny that while this movie was not really meant for me it might be very powerful for someone who puts less emphasis on plot or is more willing to empathize with poignantly doomed figures. But if you are that person, be warned: there’s a reason why this isn’t called “Pool Party of the Fireflies.”