Originally published on April 16, 2018
On April 16th, 1988, Studio Ghibli released a double feature into movie theaters all over Japan, with each of the films directed by two of the animation powerhouse’s co-founders. Those titles were MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO directed by Hayao Miyazaki and GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES directed by the late Isao Takahata.
MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO is about two young girls and their dad, who move to the Japanese countryside to be closer to their hospitalized mom. Being so close to nature, the film explores the girls’ encounters with a big, furry forest spirit known as Totoro (which is also Studio Ghibli’s mascot).
GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES is based off of the short story of the same name by Akiyuki Nosaka. It is set during the final days of World War II, as a teenage boy struggles to both look after his younger sister and survive the perils of war.
I’m sure I speak for many when I say that it’s quite strange that these two films were released together. But in the context of things, these two early works from Studio Ghibli actually have quite a few similarities.
Neither of the two films are plot-based, for they are both more so composites of different situations as they come along. An older sibling-younger sibling dynamic is the central focus of both films. A harsh reality of some extremity exists in both stories (World War II is going on in GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES, whereas Mei and Satsuki’s mom is being hospitalized for an unknown, long-term illness). Both sets of siblings are dealing with an absent parent or parents, and they find hope and light in their own ways; through the Totoros and fireflies respectively.
But it’s the stark differences that make MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO and GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES the much hailed classics they individually are. Despite its light tone, MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO still lends itself into exploring life in all its aspects. GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES doesn’t hold back on its realistic depiction of war; particularly in how it can affect children.
It’s been 30 years since both these masterpieces came out, and looking back at them, perhaps it does make sense to have had them paired up as a double feature, out of a common theme they share: MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO and GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES are stark representations of life itself.