I was expecting a lump in my throat by minute 90, but I wasn't expecting one by minute 3. The Japanese have a tradition (see Mizoguchi) of making war films where war isn't a battle between two distinct sides, but rather an elemental force, like a thunderstorm, that sweeps through and destroys the innocent. There are moments here of masterful, grief-stricken beauty, with an awareness of the past haunting the present.
I've been interested in animation as artform, mostly the form, but never thought I would have such a strong emotional reaction to a film. Warm, beautiful, cute, human, but I could sense something bad was coming, although nothing that would mess you up like this. Probably the most tears I have shed over a work, since Free Will.
SPOILERS AHEAD. Though I am grateful that Ebert's praise brought many people's attention, including mine, to Takahata's work, I must disagree with his anti-war reading of this film. Rather, I view it more as a critique of nationalism since it's the main character's pride that leads to his and his sister's downfall. On the topic of the sister, I found her death and following montage too manipulative for my taste.
It's a brave animation, but in my opinion tends for the big drama. I really like some directing choices: the close ups, monologues, some action scenes: they make this look just like a war movie. But it's not the kind of gimmick I have strong feelings for: this won't make me cry - and it's funny how many people describe this as the "one film you are going to cry watching". Not my kind of saga.
The deviations of a more emotional character imply the insistence on a rhetoric of feelings that prevents this film to reach the highest point that its formal structure allows: it’s a beautiful animated film, a wise space exploration of the medium's potential, in its visual and narrative components. However, the excess around the girl's death causes a movement a contrario sensu to its sensitive perception.
Unflinching examination of the effects of war, and the emphasis on the effect on people's spirits and goodwill stings far more than the depiction of the torment wrought on their bodies. Plus, it is a superbly balanced and scored film, with a strong element of elegy to match the horror. And the "There's No Place Like Home" sequence is one of the most devastatingly sad things ever put on film.
I do have to admit though, I know this isn't the point, but homeboy could have just apologized and tried to help out his family and the community as best he could. Completely ignoring that like you're supposed to, still pretty powerful movie. --DiB