Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no haka) (1988)
Director: Isao Takahata
Grave of the Fireflies is one of those films that begins with the end: with Seita, a young boy poor and starving, dying alone at a train station a few months after the end of World War II. The whole film is essentially a flashback by the boy's dead spirit, showing us how a child could be left to die alone. Since we know the fate of the characters from the beginning, the weight of death hangs over every scene of the story, and every decision the characters make.
The early scene of Seita's village being bombed immerses you into this tragic story. I felt Seita's fear as he looked up to the sky to see many bombs silently dropping towards him, and egged him on to get to the hills where he and his sister wouldl be safe. The relationship between the siblings is perfectly portrayed. Seita grapples with Setsuko's ignorance about the world and the war, trying hard to feed her when she is hungry, entertain her when she is bored, and mostly keep her safe. When he manages to create a little idyll for the two of them, we watch knowing it won't last, but also admiring his deep love for his sister.
This is one of the most tragic films I have ever seen. It is not simply because of the subject matter, which is sad in itself, but the understated treatment by Isao Takahata. He equates these children's lives to fireflies, whose lifespan are short but they possess a light that has the power to break through darkness, however briefly. Though animated, this film is not just for children, or arguably not even for them: the heavy sadness may be too intense for some. It is moving, painful and beautiful, and reminds us of the many casualties of war who never put on uniforms, never receive training, and are never honoured for the sacrifice of their lives.