Studio Ghibli’s Grave of the Fireflies, directed by Isao Takahata, is a powerful display of the human cost of war that makes up for its narrative shortcomings with plenty of raw and believable emotion. It’s a movie about children that I wouldn’t recommend to them at the least, but it’s a film that in many ways manages to be imaginative and even beautiful as well as tragic. Please note that discussion of several major plot points will follow.
From the very first scene, and from the back of the DVD box, we know that male protagonist Seita dies. He tells us this in a voice-over, as his body, breathing its last, is found against a support post in a train station. This is such a common event that the other passengers and station janitors are essentially hardened to it. His death is just “another one,” hardly the first of many and likely not the last. (The rest of the movie is one big flashback.)
I have mixed feelings about the film’s and its marketers’ decision to disclose the fate of the story’s main characters so quickly: on the one hand, I believe it’s quite gutsy to refuse to shield young children from such an awful fate, but on the other, the film’s open willingness to spoil one of its biggest questions from the start tends to lessen the significance of the rest of the story, since the viewer is told ahead of time just how much the following events will and won’t matter.
The movie then begins a gorgeous, somewhat magical scene that involves a boy and his younger sister, not to mention a lovely bunch of bioluminescent fireflies. The music in this scene is actually rather happy, which stands in stark contrast to the previous one, and while the opening credits are displayed in two different languages, they still aren’t nearly as poorly positioned as those in Red Tails. These heartwarming scenes continue, and they involve the boy lovingly taking care of his sister on various train rides, which sets a tone for the two characters’ relationships throughout the whole film.
In the blink of an eye …
The story itself opens, toward the close of World War II, with an air raid on a Japanese town. Seita and Setsuko, his younger sister, are busy gathering desired possessions from their home, such that they don’t quite get to a shelter before the bombs strike. The intensity of the violence in these scenes is somewhat restrained, since the people themselves don’t generally die screaming and in full view; the consequences, however, including a shore completely engulfed in flame, are still powerful to behold.
In the span of only a few moments, nearly everything around the children has been destroyed; when Setsuko asks where hers and Seita’s mother is, he replies that she’s likely in the firehouse shelter, but his voice makes him sound less confident than he would want to be. Setsuko herself is scared but utterly adorable.
In an elementary school repurposed to provide medical services, Seita is taken to see his and Setsuko’s mother as many individuals lie dead or dying. She is in a gruesome display (parents, please take note), bandaged from head to foot and with blood showing through the bandages in places. She also needs special treatment that would be best served at a real hospital. Seita openly watches his mother take her last breath. At this point he begins lying to Setsuko, telling her that their mother will get well soon. This opens the door for disaster whenever she eventually does find out, one way or another, and more to the immediate point, it doesn’t stop her from crying. Her emotions are at once restrained and heartbreaking.
Seita begins futilely working to distract his sister, including by suddenly performing gymnastic tricks, but she and the music don’t buy it. The children’s mother, at this point, is being consumed by maggots, which is briefly shown, just before she and many other dead are burned. (Their father is in the Japanese navy, and they’ve not heard from him in weeks.)
The art of this vision of a devastated Japan is as beautiful as it is ugly, being at once graphically gorgeous and deeply unpleasant: Buried supplies provide sustenance, even luxuries such as candy; bombed-open fire hydrants make new fountains and showers; and the music makes the destroyed environments oddly peaceful. The gorgeous scenery itself wouldn’t really look significantly out of place in happier Studio Ghibli works such as Kiki’s Delivery Service.
Sometimes caring for others becomes challenging.
Seita and Setsuko are taken into the care of an aunt, who eventually finds out that the children’s mother is dead and resents Seita for hiding this from his younger sister, even as he did it for her sake. She also resents Seita’s not being employed or educated, but seeing as he lost both the steelworks he worked in and the school he attended, he has nowhere left to go, nor does he really seem to look (at least not in legal ways; more on that later).
The aunt (who I can’t find a name for, so I’ll just have to refer to as such) is a practical woman with no love of sentiment, and when she plans to sell the mother’s old kimonos in a trade for rice, Setsuko breaks down crying. Being a very young girl, she likely has very little understanding of the new economic situation she’s in, which grows more desperate by the day as rationing increases.
Seita’s and Setsuko’s aunt is essentially verbally abusive, which explicitly includes declaring that the children do nothing to earn the food she makes, and she tries to kick them out. They have relatives elsewhere without a realistic way to find them. Even despite all this, the children are both playful individuals, and they’re great at keeping the story lighthearted, as much as it can be. The aunt, on the other hand, is a rather one-dimensional character: her frustration likely stems from having increasingly limited supplies, but even so, her treatment of Seita and his sister comes off as unforgiving and undeserved.
The movie’s scenes of Setsuko crying for food and other needs can honestly feel very repetitive, even as they’re realistic and important. Furthermore, they don’t take up quite so much time as to feel manipulative. Setsuko hates her current state of living, not because of the food but because of the emotional abuse; since she and Seita have no home to return to, they decide to go live off the land in an abandoned shelter. Here they can live as they please, and Setsuko is again free to enjoy her childhood, in which kamikaze planes look like fireflies.
Light can still be found in the darkest places.
The constantly shifting lighting with masses of said fireflies looks amazing and is a delight for both of the children, and in one of the happiest moments of both the scene and the film as a whole, Seita tells his sister of a time when he attended a naval review (in a way, sort of a parade), just before she was born: Their father was on a cruiser, the Maya. The review itself was accompanied by flashy lights and fireworks and by Japanese pride in the same way that one might expect Americans or individuals from other countries to be proud of their own military personnel and equipment. Seita tells his sister glorious tales of their father and of the military; she falls asleep while trying to listen, and the way she does so looks extremely uncomfortable, such that I honestly thought she was hurt at first.
The next morning Setsuko finds out that her mother and the fireflies are all dead; the fireflies, and many more people, are given mass graves of their own. Setsuko asks why the fireflies have to die so soon. No answers are given, which reflects on the remainder of the film. Meanwhile, some wanderers heartlessly trash the children’s shelters for no good reason, and at this point Seita and Setsuko are running out of food as is.
As desperation grows …
A nearby farmer has no rice to share and is hardly better off than the children are; he tells Seita to go back to his aunt and apologize, and in one of the most blatantly irresponsible decisions Seita makes in the entire film, Seita refuses. Even for all of her emotional abuse, the shelter the children’s aunt provided was still better than nothing, and she likely would not have let the two persist without tending to the bare minimum of their needs.
Seita resorts to stealing in the name of caring for his sister, and while his unending devotion to her is itself admirable, he seemingly fails to realize or care about the fact that he’s most likely placing other individuals in the same desperate situation he and Setsuko are already in. She is quite malnourished by this point, which she grossly describes in detail (it’s enough to say that she’s very dehydrated). Seita tries to steal some crops for her and ends up being caught, which leads to some brief but brutal profanity being hurled, including a specific misuse of God’s name that I didn’t think was allowed in a children’s movie; it’s certainly not appropriate.
Setsuko, meanwhile, is extremely compassionate and selfless even as her state worsens, with a touching scene featuring her making “rice balls” (she’s hallucinating) for her brother. She really is a young Kiki in the making. Unfortunately … well, guess. Or read the back of the DVD box, since it’s not exactly subtle toward either of the main characters.
The movie ends rather unceremoniously, and not all of the details leading up to the scene at the beginning of the movie (which is chronologically last) are shown. Even as premature as it feels, the ending itself is an artistically gorgeous finish to a movie that feels structurally lacking and emotionally powerful all at once for spending so much time focusing on the day-to-day life struggles of the main characters.
More than just a lack of answers …
There is no real “message” other than Seita caring for his sister, as the film’s setting and its negative depictions of war seem to be delivered without context. At one point the film glamorously displays Japanese naval craft, and at others American bombers are shown in an ominous light that makes no mention of how “the Great Japanese Empire’s” behaviors and actions, such as the attack on Pearl Harbor, in turn led up to this situation, no matter how undeserved it is for the civilians. (This in itself sticks out in my mind, since if I’m not mistaken–feel free to correct me if I’m wrong–imperial Japan had a mindset of “total war” that forced many civilians not only to work in the war effort but also to fight and defend themselves if necessary.)
Sometimes the “whys” receive no easy answers, and sometimes they don’t seem to be asked often enough; there’s no real discussion, such that I recall, of how this situation came to be or of how similar situations can be prevented in the future. Is diplomacy the answer? Do solutions lie more in restrictions on how war is waged, such as attacking only explicitly military installations, since the Geneva Conventions didn’t exist at the time? Could Seita and Setsuko have prevented their desperation in large part if they’d stayed with their aunt, whether she would still have forced them to cook their own meals or not?
In the end, it’s still worth it.
Regardless of these unanswered and often unasked questions, as well as some pacing lags where the story seems to focus over and over on Setsuko asking for something, Grave of the Fireflies is a powerful movie, centered on but not really suitable for the youngest of us, that is emotionally moving in many ways both pleasant and painful. It’s a film I would recommend viewing far more for the sake of viewing than for entertainment, but it definitely deserves a watch at least once.
As an aside, one of my favorite moments of the film, which is in turn one of the most unusual, is a scene near the end where some Japanese girls, who look to be young adults, are returning to their home. The house has been utterly untouched by the war, and even the phonograph inside still works as well as it ever did. It’s a brief but amazingly interesting scene that shows just how different life can be, fortunately or not, for two ‘families’ who live very close to one another but who wind up with very different sets of circumstances.