Japanese poetry often has “Pillow words”, a word that is used to differentiate between something that comes before and something that comes after. One of the most famous poems in “Hyakunnin Isshu” – a classical Japanese anthology of one hundred Japanese “Waka” by one hundred poets – is poem number 17,
Chihayaburu Kamiyo kikazu Tatsuta-gawa Kara kurenai ni Mizu kukuru to wa
which translates as,
Unheard of even in the legendary age of the awesome gods: Tatsuta river in scarlet and the water flowing under it
Here “Chihayabura” is an example of a “pillow word”. Its literal meaning would be “a thousand swift swords” but it actually is an honorific epithet when referring to gods, similar to “Bhagavan” in Sanskrit, particularly when referring to “Krishna” and other avatars of Vishnu or “Shri” in Devanagari,which is also frequently used in India……anyways…. we will talk more about these some other time.
Right, so…”Pillow shots” is a technique mastered by the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu.
It is a technique where you cut away, for no obvious narrative reason, to a visual element.
These are found everywhere in “Grave of the Fireflies”, a shot of the ground where you see nothing but a few ants in a single file moving food to their shelter or a scene where you see and hear only the rain as it pours down making infinite ripples in a pond or just see one or more characters in the middle of a non-consequential task. Almost every two scenes of narration are broken up by these, few seconds long, pillow shots almost as if to give you time to understand, come to grips with and contemplate what you are experiencing as it happens. Sort of a “mini contemplative intermission” found all across the length of the film.
Although the movie certainly always receives universal acclaim, it is often unfairly regarded as an anti-war film which is and inaccurate generalization. At no point in the movie is the “Enemy”(American troops) ever portrayed villainous or wrong neither can it be said to be a pro-japan propaganda film.
“Grave of the Fireflies” is simply a story of survival where the two children symbolize childhood innocence (Setsuko) and nationalism (Seita) and the effects of war on them.
The central theme to the movie would be how war changes who we are and how it is the failure of society to perform its most important duty to protect its own people.
No matter what side you fall on this spectrum of thought “Grave of the Fireflies” is a movie that will move you to tears. The emotions underneath this painterly animation feels more real than most live action movies. “Grave of the Fireflies”, on its own, has the strength to change the way you perceive animated movies.
I have seen it once and it is definitely one of my most, if not the most, favorite movie of all time and yet it is so powerful that I cannot muster the courage to see it again.