I actually watched this movie once before. It was about five years ago, I think. I just had discovered the wonders of the online anime community, and therefore was also keen on trying out the supposed “best anime ever”. It’s a movie that always gets listed among the most famous pieces of anime, alongside Ghost in the Shell and Hayao Miyazaki’s works. I didn’t like it, though. It bored me, it went on for too long and eventually I quit the movie about two-thirds in because I was bored out of my skull.
I finally gave in now. I figured that I might as well try it out a second time, especially considering how my taste has changed a lot during the past five years. And indeed, it made a totally different impression on me. I hated it once, but it’s actually a very well constructed movie. It’s not the saddest movie I’ve seen, but at the same time I can understand why this is regarded by some people as a masterpiece.
Grave of the Fireflies has a few things that set itself apart from most other WWII movies. Unlike most of them, it doesn’t start off with slice of life: it immediately throws the characters in darkness even though we hardly know anything about them at that point. After that, it’s basically the two lead characters as they try to survive after the horrible things that happened to them. Most lead characters in such a situation are written to be likable. This however is one heck of an exception. I won’t exactly go into the how and why for the sake of spoilers, but there aren’t a lot of lead characters that are more flawed than he is. And that’s what makes this movie so great.
The second point at which Grave of the Fireflies stands out is the realism. It was directed by Isao Takahata. I’ve often called this guy the king of realism, and this movie only reaffirms this. WWII-anime are already often realistic, but Grave of the Fireflies adds a whole new layer of realism with all sorts of small details and subtle touches that you can’t find in any other movie. Takahata really is one of the greatest anime directors out there: setting aside Pom Poko, there are absolutely no other series or movies that are more realistic than the works he directed.
I can’t call this a true masterpiece, though. This movie falls a bit short at fleshing out its characters. At the end of the movie, I still don’t really have the feeling that I truly know the two lead characters. While I originally dropped this movie for being too long-winded and boring, I now feel in retrospect that it easily could have been half an hour longer, so that the characters could get the time they need to properly get fleshed out.