Grave of the Fireflies

A Film Review

image: Devastation and Sorrow
“GraveOfTheFireflies”, 1988, Isao Takahata
Toward the end of World War II, when novelist Akiyuki Nosaka was a teenager, and before the atomic bomb was ready for use, America sent upwards of 500 bombers to Japan with the intent of burning down the city of Kobe where he lived. They succeeded and in the aftermath two of his sisters died of starvation. Later he wrote the novel on which the movie “Grave of the Fireflies” was based. The story tells of two children, Seita and his sister Setsuko, who escape a burning city and then slowly starve to death.
The film, which was created by animator Isao Takahata, starts with Seita's death in a train station.
image:  Death and Afterlife
In the short introductory scene most passers-by scorn or ignore the dying Seita. One however surreptitiously drops him some, now useless, food. After he dies Seita reunites with Setsuko in the spirit world. She is delighted to see him. Their parents are nowhere to be seen, the bond between brother and sister is the only one that counts. Seita takes Setsuko to review the sequence of events that led to their dying.
This is a story that begs to be animated. First because filming the total devastation of Kobe would have been almost impossible. Second because the part of Setsuko requires a four year old and no four year old could play that part.
But there is a third less obvious reason to animate this story.
image:  Animation versus Live Action
On the right we see an actor playing Seita in a live action retelling of the story. On the left we see exaggerated emotion of the kind that would turn us off if an actor attempted it. But with an animation we are apt to absorb the emotion itself without stopping to think about how realistic it is.
The effect of the animation is so powerful that even knowing the story in advance will not inoculate you from its.
After escaping Kobe's destruction Seita and Setsuko leave town to stay with an aunt and uncle.
image: Isolated
As they travel we see their isolation from other human contact. Setsuko is sleeping with her head on Seita's lap. He sees taking care of her as his responsibility and no one else's. For her part Setsuko expects that Seita will never stray from her presence. He is fine with this and has no intention of leaving her for more than short errands. Takahata has expressed the opinion that they are almost like lovers.
Once they are established with their aunt and uncle, the aunt expects Seita to find work. She decides her husband and daughter deserve a larger share of their meager food supply because they are working to support the war effort. Although Seita has brought a little wealth with him, she sees him as a freeloader. It doesn't help that Seita and Setsuko are living in their own bubble
image: Enjoying themselves
where they manage to enjoy themselves. Tensions mount until Seita decides to move to a cave-like structure. He was aware of its existence because he and Setsuko had once used it to shelter from a bombing raid.
image: Fireflies
At their new home Seita and Setsuko capture fireflies. When they die she honors them with a burial. This is where we see the significance of the film's title. The Japanese honor their ancestors. Traditional houses have altars for ancestors. Once a year during the time of Obon many Japanese take part in graveside ceremonials. Setsuko is associating the burial of fireflies with the burial of her mother but the only thing she has in common with fireflies is a very short life.
When I first saw this film I did not question Seita's decision to leave his aunt and uncle. Seita's aunt was mistreating both of them. Having been raised on fairy tales about evil stepmothers I saw the situation as untenable. Of course his decision to leave was reckless but that's not uncommon in the world of film. Besides like most Americans I appreciate individual initiative when I see it.
In a collectivist culture like Japan's, individual initiative is not appreciated so much. By placing his own opinions over those of his remaining family members Seita is being unJapanese. The film supports this point of view. Seita is told by a friendly farmer, that he should go back to his family—regardless of how badly they will treat him.
Takahata intended “Grave of the Fireflies” to be about Seita's relationships to the world and to his sister. In an interview he said that Seita “decides to become the guardian of his little sister, even if it means making an enemy out of the entire world.”
Takahata did not see “Grave of the Fireflies” as an anti-war movie. However to many of us the film is an anti-war masterpiece that shows the consequences of going it alone. As a Japanese proverb would have it: “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”
J Adrian Zimmer
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