For the Japanese filmmaker Isao Takahata, who died last year at the age of 82, the animated film was more than a vehicle for the whimsical and phantasmagoric, it was a platform for personal expression. While the same is certainly true for his friend and colleague Hayao Miyazaki, with whom Takahata co-founded the production house Studio Ghibli, Takahata pushed harder at accepted boundaries.
“Grave of the Fireflies,” the 1988 film that was Takahata’s first for Studio Ghibli, is a still-stunning example. While suffused with near-fantastic elements, “Fireflies,” based on a late-days-of-World-War-II story by Akiyuki Nosaka, mostly uses animation to heighten a harrowing realism.
The movie begins on a blunt note that resonates more of its awful tragedy as it continues: with the death by starvation of one of its lead characters, Saita, who then is reunited with his dead younger sister, Setsuko, the two of them now wandering as spirits. The movie flashes back to events of earlier months when the duo were still alive. Separated from their mother after an American bombing raid on Kobe, the pair spend their last days fending for themselves in a wasteland where no adult help is forthcoming. As much as they struggle, they remain beautifully and sometimes humorously childlike.
Although intermittently available on home video in the United States, “Fireflies” is only now getting an official theatrical release here. The movie remains one of the most startling and moving animated films ever. It is also, with the likes of “The 400 Blows,” “Kes,” and “Vagabond,” one of the finest films about being young in an indifferent world.