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Dennis Perkins

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his lovely wife, the writer Emily L. Stephens, and their cat, Cooper. When not watching all the movies ever made or digging up stories about the Maine film scene, he can be found writing for the AV Club and elsewhere. The rest of the time, he's worrying about the Red Sox.

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Posted: June 17, 2019

Whatever your age, ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ is worth seeing

Written by: Dennis Perkins

“Grave of the Fireflies” follows 14-year-old Seita (voiced by Tsutomu Tatsumi) and little sister Setsuke (5-year-old Ayano Shiraishi). Image courtesy of Space Gallery

There is no movie animation company in the world more beloved – or worthy of being so – than Japan’s Studio Ghibli.

Yes, I’m counting the consistently fine folks at Pixar and the ubiquitously lucrative Disney, which purchased the distribution rights to many of Studio Ghibli’s films in 1996. When I worked at Portland’s late, still-lamented Videoport, I was routinely thanked, at length, by beleaguered parents whose desperate searches for something – anything – other than another loud, violent, celebrity-strewn animated flick were satisfied by a recommended copy of “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Ponyo,” “Kiki’s Delivery Service” or any number of other Ghibli films.

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Featuring a lovingly painterly animated style and a decidedly unhectic gentle humanity, the studio’s films (especially from the legendary Hayao Miyazaki) are immersive experiences for viewers (of whatever age) in a world that’s profoundly childlike without ever pandering to overt sentimentality or easy stereotype. A Ghibli film is a place where minute observation comes coupled with wonder.

“Grave of the Fireflies” wasn’t part of the Disney deal. Directed by Isao Takahata, who died last year, this 1988 World War II drama perhaps wasn’t Disney’s bag when it wanted to roll out a happy, family-friendly line of Japanese imports for the American market. That means that, for decades, viewers had to be satisfied with intermittent independent home video releases, while the film never received a U.S. theatrical release. Until now, that is.

As part of a belated theatrical run, Space is bringing “Grave of the Fireflies” to Portland for two showings, on Sunday and Monday. As for “family-friendly,” Space cautions that the film – about a young orphaned brother and sister trying to survive on their own after American bombing destroys their home – carries a “parental guidance” warning. And that’s not wrong, but it shouldn’t keep anyone from seeking out what critic Roger Ebert called “one of the greatest war films ever made.” I’d add that this sparsely beautiful tale of love, loss and war is one of the best films ever made, full stop.

Based on the autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, “Grave of the Fireflies” follows 14-year-old Seita (voiced by Tsutomu Tatsumi) and little sister Setsuke (the impossibly natural, 5-year-old Ayano Shiraishi) as they flee from yet another air raid on their Kobe home. Only this time, their mother is killed, sending the pair on a journey to a distant (in more ways than one) aunt and, finally, an abandoned shelter by a river. With the resourceful Seita scavenging (and eventually stealing) food, the siblings’ at first idyllic days and nights of storybook freedom grow harsher under the encroaching weight of starvation, cold and disease.

As is the case with most Studio Ghibli works, there’s a conspicuous lack of outright villainy. War is happening, but, to the children, the political realities are less present than the everyday chaos – and pleasures – they bring. A tin of precious fruit candies and the swarms of nighttime fireflies at their makeshift home keep little Setsuke’s spirits up, and a trip to the seaside provides playful respite, until it doesn’t.

The children’s Naval officer father is away on a ship, their aunt makes patriotic speeches to justify her stinginess, and wartime rationing causes conflicts that are dispiritingly familiar, and human. Director Takahata always claimed “Grave of the Fireflies” wasn’t an anti-war film so much as a portrait of both human compassion and human failure in the face of catastrophe. An anti-war activist himself, Takahata expressed skepticism that artistic depictions of suffering could do anything at all to prevent war – a stance I have long learned to hold, too.

We revel in the cathartic emotions of a film like this (or the similar and similarly devastating French film “Forbidden Games”) and feel that, if only everyone else could see it, they’d understand. But, as Takahata seemingly knew, human beings are all too able to compartmentalize others’ suffering. Japan was on the wrong side of the war. Mexican children in cages shouldn’t have broken the law. It’s too bad and all, but you have to look at the bigger picture.

Well, “Grave of the Fireflies” is all about the close-up, even as the film’s earth-tone palette renders the children’s daily adventures in a wash of mundane reality that yet fairly glows in the light of a cooking fire, or a shelter filled with fireflies. These children. This story. When the inevitable (as the film hits us with it right at the outset) finally, mercilessly comes, it’s with the sort of wrenchingly quiet cruelty human life carries within it always. There isn’t a wasted moment in the film’s brief 88 minutes, and not a frame that doesn’t radiate from within with humanity and love, even – or especially – when our hearts break.

“Grave of the Fireflies” is screening at Space, 538 Congress St., Portland, on Sunday and Monday , June 23 & 24 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $8, $6 for Space members. For more information, go to


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