Two and a half years ago, fresh from a stirring screening of Studio Ghibli’s Grave of the Fireflies, I pitched a book about the feature to the editors of the British Film Institute’s Film Classics series. To my surprise and consternation, they said yes.
Drawing on Akiyuki Nosaka’s semi-autobiographical novella of the same name, Isao Takahata’s masterpiece tells a story of Seita and Setsuko, two Japanese siblings struggling to survive in the dying days of World War II. The film is tender, lyrical, exquisitely animated, at times uncompromisingly bleak. It has been ranked the greatest animated feature of all time, yet nothing longer than chapter-length had been written about it in English before my book.
Each BFI Film Classic provides a critical evaluation of a single film’s importance; the series gives its writers freedom to interpret this brief as they wish. I saw an opportunity to place Fireflies in its context: the history of end-of-war Japan, the circumstances of mid-1980s Ghibli, the artistic intentions of Takahata and his team. I dug up old production materials, scrutinized the film frame by frame, and even investigated the (somewhat somber) merchandise created around it.
With my book now released, I find my brain still rattling with stray thoughts and facts about the film. Here, then, are seven observations on Fireflies and the book-writing process, ranging from the obvious to the obscure.
Fireflies is sad. Very sad.
This will come as a surprise to precisely no one: the film is routinely dubbed one of the weepiest films ever. What I didn’t expect is that I’d still be crying on my 20th watch. I worried at the outset that the film’s emotional force would be blunted by overexposure. It wasn’t. Just how the film works this effect on viewers is one of the questions I seek to answer in my book.
Takahata drew more than I’d thought.
Takahata was a director from the start — he was never trained in any aspect of the visual production of animation — and he often downplayed his graphic skills. I knew he drew a little, but during my research I came across thumbnail storyboards he’d sketched on his script for Fireflies. Though basic, they provide clear blueprints for the framing and blocking of shots, which his team then elaborated into the fully-fledged storyboards and layouts. Which brings me onto my next point …
Composition is key to Takahata’s style.
This sounds banal — when is composition not important? — but I hadn’t fully appreciated how central it is to the effect Takahata creates in films like Fireflies. When thinking about the vaunted realism of his films, I’d often mused on the geographical specificities of the backgrounds in his films, the nuances of his characters’ gestures, or the naturalism of the actors who voice them.
But while studying Fireflies, I came to see how deftly he uses depth, staging action between foreground, middle ground, and background. The film never feels confined to movement across the screen, as in so much cel animation. The result is a strong impression of a fully realized, multi-dimensional world. Takahata’s use of space was influenced by Paul Grimault’s The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep, which was later reworked and rereleased as The King and the Mockingbird. Check it out.
You learn things by watching a film on mute.
I started doing this on flights, peering at the soundless screenings of Avengers and Friends on my neighbors’ screens. Freed from the distractions of music and dialogue, I’d notice patterns in the framing, rhythms in the editing, mannerisms in the acting, that had eluded me before. I’ve often muted films when analyzing them, and in Fireflies this technique helped me understand many things, especially how the siblings’ intimacy is expressed in the animation. It also spared me Setsuko’s anguished cries as her mother’s kimonos are wrenched from her.
Fireflies almost derailed Takahata’s career.
The director’s perfectionism, which would slow his later productions, was already evident in the making of this film. He embarked on painstaking historical research and held his artists to unremittingly high artistic standards. Allocated just over 14 months from pre-production to release, the team soon ran into delays, and Fireflies was ultimately released unfinished: some segments were left uncolored. The completed film was rushed into theaters a month later.
The fiasco badly damaged Takahata’s reputation, and he found himself out of work until Miyazaki brought him back into the fold by offering to produce his next film Only Yesterday — a symbolic gesture as much as anything.
There are two live-action versions of Fireflies.
I had long known of these films, a 2005 tv feature and a 2008 theatrical release, but hadn’t seen them before I got started on my book. Strictly speaking, they are adaptations of Nosaka’s story, not remakes of Takahata’s film — yet they clearly draw inspiration from the latter, particularly in how they stage the iconic fireflies scene.
Both films have their moments, but they show the strain of tight budgets: they are mostly shot on small sets and the bombing sequences are awkwardly curtailed. No amount of make-up can make the child actors look like they’re starving. Because we know intuitively what reality looks like, we pick up on the slightest unnaturalness in live action. The overt artificiality of animation frees us from these distractions, and this benefits Takahata’s film.
I also dove into Takahata’s writings, Nosaka’s essays, and archived documents from the film’s production and marketing campaign. These materials contain a trove of information about Ghibli’s history, but they remain untranslated and largely untapped by English-language scholars. I hope that changes.