Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no haka)

Grave of the FirefliesI often watch movies in 20-minute chunks while I eat breakfast, and while this sometimes creates a somewhat disjointed effect it is also the only practical way for me to consume cinematic material on a regular basis.  Recently a friend of mine suggested, in response to a Facebook post asking for suggestions of a good anime film, that I watch Grave of the Fireflies.  But, he cautioned, I should do so all at once instead of breaking it up into segments while I munch on rice krispies.  And so when I was at a conference recently I decided to shut out all distractions in my hotel room and focus solely on this movie while I watched it in its entirety.  Turns out my friend was right, and I was treated to one of the most engrossing tales of humanity ever committed to the silver (or, in the case of me and my laptop, LCD) screen.  Grave of the Fireflies is a heart-wrenching tale of devotion and despair, and one of the saddest movies I have seen since Schindler’s List.  The opening words, spoken by young teenager Seita, set the tone for the rest of the movie:  “September 21, 1945…that was the night I died.”  We then see him, bruised and hungry, as he lives out his final moments in a dirty train station.  The rest of the story is told in flashback as we see Seita and his young sister Setsuko and how their lives are transformed during the allied bombings of Japan during World War II.  Since the outcome is never in question, the focus of the film is shifted to the relationship between the two children as Seita struggles to care for his sister in the wake of their mother’s death during an air raid.

Grave of the Fireflies - Catching Fireflies

Seita and Setsuko reveling in the simple joys of childhood.

And what a relationship it is.  Though the two characters are colored drawings, they possess a deep humanity that is rarely seen in any movie whether live-action or animated.  The focus of the movie is on the simple moments that reinforce the love that Seita has for his sister, and the degree to which she depends on him for everything she has.  They play in the ocean, eat fruit drop candies, gather supplies for their makeshift shelter by a river, and catch fireflies in the moonlight.  Through it all Seita will do anything for his sister, sacrificing whatever he has and doing whatever it takes to get her the food and care she so desperately needs.  And that’s about it:  no conspiracies, no double-crosses, no hidden agendas, just a boy determined to care for his sister in the face of incredible odds and dwindling resources.  And even though we are fully aware of what will happen (to Seita, at least–the fate of Setsuko, though predictable, is not shown until the end of the film) we can’t help but be thoroughly enraptured with this simple tale of innocent care and affection.

In fact, I kept on expecting another shoe to drop:  when a group of children stumble across their shelter, my American movie sensibilities were bracing for the worst:  they would surely burglarize or vandalize the shabby campsite, leaving Seito and Setsuko even worse off than before.  But such conventional narrative tricks are nowhere to be found here, and serves to elevate Fireflies far beyond the level of typical cinema.

Grave of the Fireflies Seita Setsuko

War, as seen through the eyes of a child.

After Seita and Setsuko leave their hometown of Kobe they go to live with their aunt Akemi, and I found this to be one of the most frustrating segments of the narrative as Seita refuses to help out around the house, secure employment, or otherwise help the war effort of his native country.  After several sharp rebukes from Akemi, he decides to take his sister and seek shelter on their own–a choice that eventually leads to tragic ends for both children.  If only Seita had been more responsible, if only he had listened to his aunt, if only he had sought medical care for Setsuko sooner…if only.  And yet my frustration at the well-meaning but ultimately tragic decisions of Seita reinforces the strength of the film as a whole, as these flaws only served to draw me deeper into the story.

The simplicity of the story allows for a deep emotional connection to develop between the viewers and the characters:  sometimes Seita makes some fairly dumb decisions, and I found myself growing frustrated and irritated as I watched.  Setsuko is one of the most convincing young children I have ever seen in a movie–animated or live action–and the impeccable voice acting perfectly complements the stunning animation.  Metaphors abound too:  from the fireflies, which burn bright but reach the end of life so quickly, to Seita himself as a representation of Japan and her stubbornness to admit defeat in the face of overwhelming opposition.

I am not a soldier, and from the comfort of my living room which I so freely enjoy thanks to the ones who have bravely served in the line of duty, I am hardly in a position to make any sort of political statement on the validity of war.  But having seen many, many war films from Bridge on the River Kwai andThe Great Escape to Platoon and Saving Private Ryan, I can say that Grave of the Fireflies stands toe to toe with the greatest war films of our time, and possibly even since the inception of the medium.  It is a profound and deeply personal tale of how the hardships of war can affect the deepest of human connections.


As a side note, I cannot stress how important it is to see this film presented in Japanese. The voice acting is absolutely superb, and the American voiceover, as is the case with most anime, strips the film of much of its emotional weight.

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Rating: 5.0/5 (2 votes cast)

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs

All stories, be they novels, vignettes, movies, poems, or any number of media by which tales are told, start out as ideas. “Hey, what if…” “Wouldn’t it be cool…” “Ok, so there’s this guy…” In the motion picture realm, these ideas can lead to horrendous results (“Robots that turn into cars!” “A talking duck!” “Let’s turn this video game into a movie!“), but often something emerges that turns out to be not entirely awful, but not entirely awesome. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs takes a wonderfully simple premise, adds a generous portion of strained father-son relationship, mixes in a dash of biting wit, blends it with razor-sharp dialog, and topps the whole concoction off with some truly excellent celebrity voice acting to produce one of the most surprisingly entertaining and downright enjoyable movies I have watched in a long time.

Consider this most basic of ideas, something that would seem to have taken shape on a third-grade playground:  What if you could make it rain food?  Turns out the execution of such a premise, when put on celluloid with the magic of CGI animation, is brilliantly entertaining.  Based on the bestselling children’s book of the same, Meatballs tells the story of idealistic young inventor Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader), a post-teenage ADHD case with his head in the clouds and his mind lost somewhere between ambition and common sense.  A resident of the small island nation of Swallow Falls (located just under the “A” in “Atlantic Ocean”), he wants to solve his homeland’s problem of surplus sardines by inventing a machine that creates food–any type of food–from nothing but water.  Part of what makes this such a fun movie is its offbeat sense of humor, tongue-in-cheek scriptwriting, and a keen sense of self-awareness that many other animated movies lack.  Flint’s daring but woefully impractical inventions run the gamut of wide-eyed elementary school notebook drawings:  spray-on shoes, robotic TVs, rat/bird hybrids, and other whimsical creations that somehow seem perfectly at home in the irreverent setting of this animated adventure.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs: Flint, Sam, Steve

Sam, Flint, and Steve the talking monkey pondering the meaning of life.

What makes this movie stand out from the crowd is its heart.  Flint is an eminently relatable protagonist, and his eternal optimism is infectious.  His mother, the most vocal champion of his inventions, passes away when he is young, and he grows up with a father who does not understand him and just wants him to work at the local bait and tackle shop.  Never one to settle, Flint refuses to give up on his inventions until his food creation machine wreaks havoc at a local ribbon-cutting ceremony.  But soon he realizes that the machine actually functions better than he thought possible, as it begins raining all kinds of culinary creations from the sky.  I’m not kidding, either–virtually every type of food one can fathom drops from the heavens in this movie, and it’s such an outrageous premise that you can’t help but smile as it all happens.

Rounding out the cast is TV weather reporter Sam Sparks (Anna Faris), greedy mayor Shelbourne (Bruce Campbell!) and devoted police officer Earl Devereaux (voiced by none other than Mr. T himself).  All do a fantastic job in their roles, bringing their characters to life with gleeful aplomb that is so often missing in by-the-numbers hollywood cartoon movies these days.  And as Lockwood’s invention begins to spiral out of control, we also once

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs: Tim Lockwood

Flint's dad Tim, trying to work a computer.

again learn the classic animated movie lesson that people are often far more than they appear on the surface–except those evil politicians, though.  Everyone knows they are just as greedy, shallow, and singleminded as they appear because movies like this have been telling us that since we were kids.

Sure things are predictable, and one could probably map out the basic plot after watching the first ten minutes of the movie, but the fun of Meatballs is the wonderful excess to which it lets itself travel.  Swallow Falls becomes literally buried in absolutely ginormous portions of food, and the world itself is threatened with annhillation by means of spaghetti hurricanes, skyscraper-flattening pancakes, and cheese logs the size of farm silos.  And like the best movies out there, this one just asks you to stop thinking logically and start thinking like a third-grader:  just sit back, relax, let the beautiful ridiculousness of this wonderfully executed idea wash over you like a wave of melted ice cream, and enjoy the ride.


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Rating: 3.7/5 (6 votes cast)

The Iron Giant

Before Brad Bird was launched into superstardom (directorially speaking, that is) following the release of The Incredibles, he was a creative talent floating around Hollywood with a penchant for animation and slightly quirky stories.  He was a writer and animator for The Simpsons, a consultant for the oddball animated comedy The Critic, and was even involved in a few projects with Steven Spielberg.  With the release of The Iron Giant, his animation-meets-CGI opus from 1999, he was given a chance to show the world what he and his rich imagination could do given enough time to develop a full-length storyline.  The results were good, but met with a few flaws that keep this film from being among the truly classic works of animation.

At its core, The Iron Giant is a story about a boy and his friend.  This boy, named Hogarth, like the protagonists of so many of these kinds of films, is misunderstood by adults, has few companions at school, and spends too much time lost in his own imagination.  He’s a bit Calvinlike, in some respects, though not as mean-spirited towards authority.  At any rate, it’s no surprise that when an unearthly visitor crash-lands near the boy’s small hometown in Maine, that Hogarth forms an immediate bond with him.  Hogarth and the Iron Giant (voiced rather tenderly by the venerable Vin Diesel) spend much of the film simply existing together:  playing, relaxing, having adventures, and keeping their secret friendship away from adults and authority figures.  Much of the film is a paint-by-numbers exercise in retreading past stories, though:  Hogarth’s mom is too busy to pay attention to her son.  One man, a government investigator, knows something is going on with Hogarth and is determined to find out.  One adult does believe Hogarth and helps him out.  Soon enough the secret is out and the authorities do find out.  Everyone freaks, people panic, the Army gets involved, and…well, you get the point.

The Brad Bird quirkiness comes from the sheer nature of the story: a kid befriends a 100-foot tall metal behemoth.  It’s a bit different from typical Disney fare, you might say.  But I had a hard time buying the friendship and the isolation from all adults.  Early on in the film the giant causes a train to crash, and this should have been a pivotal turning point in the story.  But for the most part people just continue in their daily lives afterwards while Hogarth and his pet giant continue to frolic about in the woods unnoticed, and no one in town (save for the savvy investigator) bothering to ask any questions.  I can give animated films a lot of leeway and wiggle room, but I just wasn’t able to let go of some of these types of plot issues.

Like Titan A.E., I get the feeling that this film started out as a fantastic idea, but something got lost in the translation to celluloid.  It’s entertaining but not engrossing.  Interesting but not engaging.  And the emotional core never really came through to me (Hogarth actually says “I love you” to the giant late in the film–a cringe-worthy moment that felt entirely forced and was entirely unbelievable, and seemed like the filmmakers knew they had failed to create a true emotional connection between the two characters and at that point decided to just go for broke.)  I suppose if I was younger the movie would have been better, but seeing it for the first time as a guy who’s almost thirty, it just wasn’t as good as I hoped it would be.

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Rating: 5.0/5 (1 vote cast)