Writer/director Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies is one of the most emotionally powerful cries against war that the movies have ever seen. It's set on the Japanese side of World War II, but makes no attempt to vilify Americans nor justify Japan's involvement in the war. The Americans are only dealt with in the absolute terms of the planes that rain fire upon Tokyo and the damage that causes to the people living there. Takahata is concerned only with people, and actually makes no overt anti-war statements whatsoever. He simply shows the devastation that war has on people. He's a humanist who creates such rich characters that even though they're animated, we still fear for their survival as though they were actual human beings.
Grave of the Fireflies is also the movie for people who believe that animation, and anime in particular, is just for kids. Few live action movies have ever created characters and bonds as real as those between Seita and his young sister Setsuko. That both characters are doomed we know from the opening narration, as Seita says "September 21, 1945... that was the night I died." We see him, alone, dying of starvation in a train station. We go through the movie as Seita's spirit recounts his life, starting with losing his mother during the bombings. That may make the movie sound unusually depressing, but that's not Takahata's goal here. There are many delightful scenes between the brother and sister, particularly when they are capturing fireflies to light up their shelter. Still, Takahata doesn't sugar coat the war experience for these kids. When they're left to fend for themselves, we feel their hunger and desperation in the deepest part of our souls.
The screenplay is based on the semi-autobiographic novel of the same name by Japanese author Akiyuki Nosaka, written as a way to cope with the horrors that he encountered during the war, including losing two sisters and his step-father. This is the first movie of Takahata's that I've seen, although I've seen the entire catalog of his Studio Ghibli cohort Hayao Miyazaki (which I wrote briefly about before, http://enterthemovies.blogspot.com/2008/12/my-neighbor-totoro.html, after seeing his My Neighbor Totoro). Takahata directs with a delicate, loving hand. The animation is lushly detailed, creating many painfully poetic images. His dialog is realistic, but never boring, he truly creates real people here. These two characters, especially young Setsuko, are ones that I won't soon forget. A remarkable, one of a kind emotional experience.