ᴊᴏᴇ ᴍᴄᴋᴇᴏᴡɴ’s review published on Letterboxd:
As beautiful as it is heartbreaking, Grave of the Fireflies portrays the unrelenting human terror of life during war.
When Seita and Setsuko - older brother and younger sister respectively - are left practically orphaned by the bombs, they endeavour to survive in war-torn Japan without parents, food or shelter.
Seita is roughly 16 years old and already well acquainted with the horrors of war, but when his village is destroyed, he and his infant sister manage to find shelter with a distant aunt, but quickly it becomes apparent that in war time, even family becomes fractured.
As Seita and Setsuko go it alone, they beg, steal and borrow whatever food and shelter they can to keep going through the turmoil.
The character of Setsuko is particularly affecting. She's very reminiscent of Mei in Totoro in how she's such an innocent, cute kid, and yet the film never caves to sentiment, instead focussing on an element of war rarely studied - the idea of poverty - but through the eyes of these two individuals who, when you see them playing together, running through the fields, understand that this is exactly what these two kids should be doing, and yet five minutes later, we'll have to endure a moment almost unthinkable to what we have just witnessed. This is where Grave of the Fireflies gets it absolutely right. It isn't mawkish in it's approach, it simply sets up a child's universe around a very dangerous and uncontrollable event.
I was quite struck by how measured the film was towards the end. There's no doubt that you anticipate a certain climax given the nature of the film, but the slow, haunting way in which the story plays out is what is so brutally sad.
It does remind me in some respects to certain scenes in Come and See.. The way in which the director juxtaposes this childlike playfulness with an ever-increasing sense of danger. Throughout the movie, you don't feel the inherent danger of the war itself, such as bombs dropping from the sky, you kind of feel like these kids would somehow manage to evade that, but then there are very real factors of which they are completely inept at dealing with. And that's why it feels so powerful. It deals with exactly the kind of circumstances in war that you imagine so many people, particularly children, suffered with.
But a powerful subject matter does not a great film make. This could easily fall into the trap of being an unspectacular film that deals with a spectacular subject. I know a lot of people love Schindler's List for example, and I understand that it holds a certain resonance with people, but from a technical filmmaking standpoint, I've always thought it is without question one of Spielberg's most heavy-handed films. But never is that the case with Grave of the Fireflies. Despite dealing with very powerful subject matter, it doesn't rest on its laurels and instead delivers a unique statement on the effects of war that is rarely touched upon.
The animation is beautiful - there's something about the late-80's Ghibli that sets them apart. The score pulls on the heartstrings. The story is undoubtedly powerful.
A great film.