(Japan 1988 94m) DVD1/2
Aka. Hotaru no haka
The little red tin
p Tohru Hara d/w Isao Takahata novel Akiyuki Nosaka ed Takeshi Seyama m Yoshio Mamiya art Ryoichi Sato
VOICES BY:- Rhoda Chrosite (Setsuko), J.Robert Spencer (Seito), Amy Jones (aunt), Veronica Taylor (mother), Shannon Conley, Crispin Freeman, Dan Green,
For those who do not know Takahata’s masterpiece, my exclaiming it to be one of the most emotional films in the entire list would seem like a statement bordering on lunacy, when you consider some of the material herein. Yet it is not lunacy, but rather a profound response to a truly profound movie. And before you say it, yes, it is an animated film. But to merely call this an animated film doesn’t just insult the film, it insults the reader. Studio Ghibli has, in recent times, meant simply the work of Hayao Mizayaki to most westerners, but Takahata’s film equals anything Miyazaki has ever achieved and may come to be regarded as the greatest Japanese anime film of them all.
Sometime in 1945 in a Japanese town, an air raid calls the townsfolk to the shelter to escape the fire-bombing of the American bombers. One family, a mother and her two children, young son Seito and girl toddler Setsuko, hear the call. She heads on ahead to the shelter while they grab a few things, but in searching for Setsuko’s doll, they take too long and are left in the house when the bombers rain down their fiery cargo on the town. They eventually make it to safety but learn that there is nothing left of the shelter or virtually the entire town, save for a school. There Seito finds his mother, who is so badly burned as to be unrecognisable, and realises the situation is hopeless. He determines not to tell his little sister of their mother’s death when she dies a day or so later, and they head off to stay with their aunt in a nearby town. Unfortunately, the aunt couldn’t really care less, thinking only of the food they can bring in from their father being in the navy and from selling off their dead mother’s kimonos for more rice.
If that tale sounds a depressing one, it’s meant to. It’s fair to say that, apart from a brief sojourn on a beach, the children’s tale is a downward spiral to their eventual, inevitable – from both the mood of the film and the opening sequence from which the story flashed back – demise. Yet what is so remarkable is that it would have been so easy to take the simpler, manipulative route. Takahata’s film, like the truly tragic kids, doesn’t ask for pity. It rather seems to act as an accusation against war – hardly an original mission statement, but remarkably effective. Indeed, it’s a film that would, as the often too easily impressed Roger Ebert said, “belong on any list of the greatest war films ever made.” It’s a tale with its feet definitely anchored in reality, based as it was on Nosaka’s guilt trip of a semi-autobiographical novel (he, too, lost a little sister in the same circumstances). It also has the added touch of seeing the war through the eyes of children, which makes it in a way a descendant of Clément’s Jeux Interdits.
Mind you, without being contradictory, it’s rather to Japanese films past that it seems closer linked. There’s an almost Ozu-like feel about the understatement of much of what takes place – and indeed of the selfish relatives who fail in their duty – a sort of serenity exemplified by the eponymous fireflies and the innocence of the tragic pair. Not to mention the haunting use of ‘There’s No Place Like Home’ in the moments after Setsuko’s death from malnutrition (which perhaps also recalls the singing of the prisoners in another classic Japanese war film, The Burmese Harp, which also dealt with a protagonist dehumanised by the atrocities around him). Whatever you take from it, it would take the hardest of hearts not to cry through the last act, as the misery and desolation envelops the viewer like the black rain accompanying the fire bombs. A film summed up when Setsuko asks “why do fireflies have to die so soon?” while, behind them, two fireflies dance in the air before dying out, indicative of the children’s death before their time. If you have to see one Japanese animated film in your lifetime, you could do no better.