I like to think that I have a fairly broad knowledge of most things cinematic but if there’s a weak spot in my armoury, it’s definitely animation – and in particular, the large body of work created by Japan’s Studio Ghibli. This is not intentional, merely the fact that such work is hard to find on the big screen, which I feel is the best place to view it. But The Red Turtle, Ghibli’s co-production with Michael Dudok de Wit featured in our ‘best of 2017’ selection, so I was definitely in the market to see more of it – and then I heard that Edinburgh’s Cameo Cinema were planning a Ghibli retrospective. Perfect.
Grave of the Fireflies (1988) is set in Japan towards the end of World War 2 as Allied bombers move in to decimate any last traces of opposition. (Yes, Walt Disney this most emphatically is not). A teenage boy, Seita (voiced by Tsutomu Tatsumi) is faced with the tricky task of looking after his little sister, Setsuko (Ayano Shiraishi), when their mother dies after a devastating bombing raid. Their father, a battleship commander, is nowhere to be seen and they have no way of contacting him. In the aftermath of the war, even finding food is a major problem. At first, the two youngsters move in with their aunt and uncle, who are ready to fulfil their familial obligations, but resentment soon begins to smoulder and Seita and Setsuko eventually decide that they will be much happier looking after themselves…
As an introduction to Studio Ghibli, this is an inspired choice. The film is curiously bleak, shot through with an almost overwhelming sense of melancholy, yet for all that, there are moments of genuine enchantment here. The characterisation of Setsuko is particularly engaging, effortlessly capturing the bewilderment of a little girl cruelly torn from her parents, yet still capable of finding wonder in the simplest of things. And of course, every frame looks absolutely sumptuous. I also loved the circular narrative of the story. When we first encounter the two youngsters, they are vintage ghosts, haunting the streets of modern city – and there’s the clever device of a sweet tin containing marbles that only begins to fully make sense as the story builds. The film’s overpoweringly sad conclusion will wring tears from all but the most stoic of viewers, but that’s no bad thing – and it’s easy to appreciate the love and care that has gone in to every frame of this lovely and haunting film.
The Cameo will be screening a Studio Ghibli classic every Sunday afternoon for the next five weeks. Next up, My Neighbour Totorro. Can’t wait.