Cover Image: Grave of the Fireflies

Grave of the Fireflies

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I received a free eARC from the author/publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

I don't have much to say about this title, so I'll keep it short. This was an interesting look at various aspects of the film Grave of Fireflies. It explores the original source material (Nosaka's autobiographical work) and looks at how it was changed for film. It also talks about the process of production and reception of the film. 
It's easy to read, and very well researched. I would recommend this for those interested in film studies, Japanese film, Japanese history (including WWII, and animation history), and fans of Grave of Fireflies itself.
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The excellent series of BFI books on films carries on quite excellently.

"There is something fitting about this, for beneath the veneer of critical consensus, the film turns out to be a bundle of paradoxes: a work of groundbreaking animation directed by a non-animator; a box-office mediocrity with a considerable influence; one half of an utterly unorthodox double bill; a masterpiece that almost derailed its director’s career; a tragedy that celebrates the beauty of existence; a historical drama that is, first and foremost, about the present day."

I had never seen Grave of the Fireflies - it has this massive reputation, basically coming across like a soul-scalding feature, rife with gory horrors and emotional sandtraps. So I decided the publishing of this book would be an excellent chance to finally watch the film, and move on to reading the book.

And the film is incredibly good, and very emotional. And a brave feature to make, in a country that was still struggling with its own part in WW2.

And then there is this book, which gives a good sense of that struggle, and the thoughts behind making the film. I had no idea Grave of the Fireflies was supposed to be part of a double bill with My Neighbor Totoro, and Grave is certainly an outlier in the Ghibli cannon (and the only Ghibli film not currently on Netflix, at least here in Europe).

The book is illustrated with stills from the film, and includes other material, including some merchandise (another surprise).

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I still remember the first time I saw "Grave of the Fireflies". It was the second year of my high school education. Philosophy class. I was a war-hating atheist and I had a fight with my war-loving ultra Orthodox Christian philosophy teacher about war. He said that war and death are necessary, while I tried to oppose him. Of course, I couldn't win, he was older and was a "professional" philosopher while I was just a random punk, but he also couldn't convince me one bit. 

Naturally, the first thing I did after getting home was to check for some anti-war anime. And, of course, one of the first things that popped up was Isao Takahata's 1988 masterpiece "Grave of the Fireflies". As to be expected by anyone who's seen it, the movie cemented my anti-war views by showing the destructive effects of war on children. 

Reading Alex Dudok de Wit's masterful history of this animation, I was reminded of this and also understand the reasons behind a studio such as Ghibli to make a hearth-wrenching and realistic film as this. Highly recommended.
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First, if you have not seen the movie Grave of the Fireflies stop now and go watch it. 

Now, this is a book about the movie (created by Isao Takahata) and the short story (by Akiyuki Nosaka) it is based on. The story is that of the last days of the lives of Seita and Setsuko. They are siblings who have made it to the end of World War II but do not survive it. The original short story is autobiographical and was written as an anti-war story. Decades later Takahata created the classic anime movie of the short story with a similar purpose in mind. This book from BFI is all about the creation of this movie and which scenes are similar or different from the original story. 

This feels like something you would normally see as a tv documentary but since both Nosaka and Takahata have passed, a book featuring old quotes from these two and previous stories about Grave of the Fireflies seemed to the only route one could go. I definitely liked learning more about a movie I have enjoyed.
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I absolutely adore the film Grave of the Fireflies, produced by Studio Ghibli, and its powerful telling of loss and wartime. This book gave an impressive, haunting insight into the background of the film and its setting, which I honestly did not know much about. American history classes often purport any other countries and cultures in a negative light, so reading this from the Japanese perspective is insightful and provides heartbreakingly accurate context to the statements made in the film.
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My very best friend spent a long time persuading me to read and watch Grave Of The Fireflies. I feared both were outside my comfort zone. I'm glad he persevered and I discovered this great iconic story.
Alex Dudok de Wit helps one to grasp all the various aspects, from Nasaka's memorial to his sister and his own guilt, to Takohata's more classically tragic interpretations of Seita and Setsuko.
The summer of 1945 was a time of people in crisis and Grave Of The Fireflies has the power to bring tears to our eyes. We should never forget the horrors of war.
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I think this is the first BFI Classic I have received where I hadn't seen the film - which felt strange. There must be people who read them without, and I toyed with trying that, but luckily there was a screening of Grave Of The Fireflies last weekend and so I read this as soon as I came out. So oddly, it became the book that I read with the film most vividly in my memory. Not that its a book that requires great recall of the film from its reader, as in part of its comparison between the source novella and film, the author ends up summarising the film in quite some detail. Which in many ways is emblematic of a book written by a working critic, rather than academics or those outside the field, who have authored a number of the BFI Classics I have read. This is more of a biography of the film than a hagiograph. Its clear Dudok de Wit admires the film, and has done since he first saw it as a boy, but he never aggressively argues for its virtues - and indeed spends much of the book discussing whether or not it was a failure considering the aims of the director.

Grave Of The Fireflies is an odd film in the Studio Ghibli ouvre, though not so odd if you think of Takahata's films compared to Miyazaki's. A war film, about the impact on the Japanese civilian population of the American firebombings of their cities (in this case Kobe), its a hugely affecting story of a brother and younger sister slowly dying. The book considers how unusual it is as anime and therefore grasps with themes and ideas outside just the purview of the film, not least what realism in animation looks like. Equally the films place historically in Japanese cinema which has often not dealt with the war years, or the Japanese civilian population who propped up the Empire (partially as the Shōwa era was only just at its end, Hirohito still being in place).  So whilst the book spends a lot of time on the film, and its themes, it also spends more time on the world the film was created in, not least because this plays into the thematic issues where Takahata feels he failed.

GotF is often thought of as an anti-war film, and it works exceptionally well on that front. However watching it there is a broader spread of responsibility for the children's death than just war being assigned. Most people point at the mean aunt, who they leave due to her attitude. But Takahata wanted the film to also consider how responsible Seita - the elder brother - is for their eventual death. They move out of his aunt's because of pride more than anything else, she does not kick them out and is at least feeding them. Does the films emotional power overshadow this question, do the audience see a fourteen year old boy (animated too), as being able to have that kind of responsibility. He seems to think he is responsible for his sister, so in taking her from an unpleasant but safe environment, is the ultimate end his fault. Its an interesting question (I picked up on this watching, but must admit the overall sadness does overwhelm). Authorial intention means little once the film is out there, and yet this was a good issue to pin the book on and I even got the sense that in the process of writing Dudok de Wit's opinion of the film has changed a bit. And in between all of that there are lots of lovely bits of trivia about the film, not least that it was initially released in a double bill with My Neighbour Totoro, a very tonally jarring pairing.
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Grave of the Fireflies by Alex Dudok de Wit, a volume in the BFI Film Classics series, does a wonderful job of telling the history from written story to animated feature film, as well as offering those outside Japan with enough background to appreciate what Takahata tried yet failed to convey with the film.

Like most viewers, my initial experience of the feature was largely as a very sad war story about children on a home front. The deeper aspects stopped, for me, at the more universal concepts of life being short and at times even the bad times can have bright moments. That is grossly simplified but my point is that not being from Japan I had no context for the more specific concerns about Japanese society that Takahata tried to express. My second viewing of the film was at a small festival where a professor introduced the film by touching on those aspects and I have to admit to still not seeing it.

That is where this book was particularly helpful for me. The explanations and context that is presented allowed me to better understand what Takahata tried to do. That said, it is still going to be one of those films that, when I watch it, I am going to need plenty of tissues even if I am also thinking about underlying themes.

I would recommend this to anyone who has watched the film and would like to better understand some of the statements Takahata was making. The contextualizing does not diminish whatever effect the film had on you on previous viewings, simply adds some layers.

Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.
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Thank you Alex Dudok de Wit! I was so happy to able to read this book. Grave of the Fireflies was the most heartbreaking film I think I've ever watched. Beautiful anime. It was very interesting to read the back story of it and to learn it had been a graphic novel. I had no idea, but am going to try and find the book now that I know. I think it was fascinating to learn how the story was related to the author's life and his thought's on the story. Anyone who loves this film should read this book. Just great!
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