Along with his better-known partner, Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata is the still active co-founder of Japan’s Ghibili Animation Studios. And while his films have never acquired the Stateside profile of his partner’s work, this horrors-of-war story, about an orphaned teenage boy & his kid sister trying to scrape by during the chaotic WWII endgame in Japan, has a fierce following and now a new DVD remastering. It’s one of those films that says all the right things (whose side can one be on when innocent children suffer?), yet winds up pulling more tears out of its principals than out of an audience. As the inseparable siblings slide toward a desperate end: mother lost to firebombs; father presumably lost to the navy; distant relatives giving little comfort; and a prideful attempt to live alone in a deserted shelter turning the boy into a scavenging thief and the girl into a malnutritioned shadow of her spirited self; the tragic events start to feel mechanical, with the two children corralled into big issue topics. And Takahata, at least in this film, doesn’t have the sheer visual command of his more famous animation partner, while the use of ghostly flashbacks & those glowing fireflies that live but a day begins to feel awfully calculated.
NOTE: The on-going popularity of this film in Japan appears to have inspired a live-action remake (see poster). Its hard to think this would be an improvement.
DOUBLE-BILL: Takahata must have taken some of his inspiration from René Clément’s equally honored, equally acclaimed, equally overpraised FORBIDDEN GAMES/’52, another film that looks at WWII from a child’s POV. François Truffaut’s minority view was that it failed because the kids weren’t believable, too solemn & thoughtful, and, perhaps, that’s the underlying problem with FIREFLIES, as well.
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The children’s WWII wartime experience in John Boorman’s HOPE AND GLORY/’87 can’t be compared with the horrors Takahata has to deal with, but the film remains breathtakingly original.