"21st September, 1945… That was the night I died."
Grave of the Fireflies begins as a young man stands in uniform unfazed, looking back on the moment he died. Slouched against a pole in tattered clothes, starving in silence while dozens of people pass by. One person in an act of pity places food beside him, but it’s too late. Lacking the will to even eat, his frail body collapses among other starved corpses nearby. An empty tin can found on his person is tossed by a field outside as if it were trash. Yet from the second it lands, fireflies materialize from the ground and cast a blazing glow that brightens the field. A young girl rises to her feet, confused at the sight of her brother lying prone on the floor. She’s startled, until suddenly a hand rests on her shoulder. Standing beside her, he greets his sister with a smile before handing her a tin can now full of treats, and together they walk aboard an empty train. Free from hunger and pain as they saunter off to the next life.
'The fireflies rose, burned ever so brightly, before slowly returning to darkness.'
This scene sets the soul-crushing tone for what to expect over the course of the film. Grim and unflinching in its portrayal of the privations of war and their effect on the most innocent of victims: children. Grave of the Fireflies follows the struggles that siblings Seita and Setsuko face through this hellish time as their former livelihoods are wiped out in an air raid. As a result, both are forced to endure and continue living in a nation crumbling from warfare and famine. Their journey is intertwined with the lives of many different people, all directly impacted by the war and all trying to cope with the struggle. A welcoming aunt at first turns resentful guardian. A farmer who shows compassion to the two but can only feed himself. A doctor concerned with diagnosing problems, yet never tries to cure them. There are no heroes present here, just a story about survival. Except here the outcome was given from the start – they don’t.
From the minute the firebombing starts, viewers already have a clear enough sense of how this story plays out. With their home left in ruins and ripped away from their mother, what’s left is a tale of two kids still clinging onto one another alone in an uncharitable world, fending for themselves as best they can. But without a hopeful ending, it’s more akin to watching a slow death play out than otherwise. Director Isao Takahata makes these opening scenes count. In such a short span of time, he places the audience in a position where emotional attachment with the main characters feel genuinely crafted. We’re instantly drawn to Setsuko’s abundant wonder and childlike innocence, and likewise support Seita as he must transform into the parental figure his sister will need. We realise how food scarcity and a general lack of resources impacts them both above all others. And naturally, we can only feel sorry for the two. Their circumstance and untimely demise lie out of their control as both are reduced to mere numbers tallied to the body count their country holds.
For a film that illustrates a tragedy not suitable for most children, Grave of the Fireflies’ greatest strength lies in the fact that it exists as an animated feature. There are several instances where gratuitous images are lingered on, never shying away from the bleakness of these scenes. So brutal, that had the film been made as a live-action, could easily have crossed the line from harrowing to simply unbearable for most. In this, Grave of the Fireflies showcases the power of animation, where the most grotesque scenes are offset with accompanied visuals that are beautiful, evocative and aesthetically pleasing. Graphic displays of burned bodies and malnourished children never come off sadistic, but certainly leave their mark on the viewer. It’s a movie that whilst easily stands out from the typical Ghibli picture, arguably could not have been produced by any other studio. Breath-taking landscapes, delightful character designs and a keen attention to detail are lucid across its runtime, constantly emphasizing the smaller moments just as much as the larger ones. It takes a special group on staff to pour so much effort into each scene, having managed to hold up over 30 years since its release. They did a remarkable job, especially when realizing this was being produced alongside Ghibli’s other feature film at the time, My Neighbor Totoro. Both impressive in their production, but ironically have conflicting views on innocence; where Totoro celebrates the blossoming times of childhood, here those wonders are short-lived; slowly crushed under the weight our leads are burdened with.
A brief overview of the synopsis would give the impression that Grave of the Fireflies is first and foremost an anti-war film, depicting the harsh nature and consequences of conflict for the audience to bear witness to. Takahata actively denied this notion, saying he intended the film as a glimpse into lives affected from society failing to protect its own people. Originally published in 1967 as a semi-autobiographical work, author Akiyuki Nosaka wrote Grave of the Fireflies as an apology. Having lived in Japan during World War II, he lost his home and father to the firebombing of Kobe, losing his sister Keiko to starvation soon afterward. The guilt and remorse Nosaka felt compelled him to write this story as a double-suicide, using Seita’s death as a way of atonement for his actions. Understanding the source material better puts the film’s overall message into context. Despite key events clearly coinciding with WWII, the film never places blame to either side of the war, nor is the enemy ever recognized as American.
War is not the focus, only the backdrop here; simply serving the characters a situation to create conflict. Instead the story is concerned exploring the war at hand on a more personal level, and as a result uncovers pride as a reoccurring pattern within the plot. Pride fuels the war that took away their mother, drives the children to live on their own away from their unpleasant guardian, steers Setsuko to a premature death before leaving Seita to his own downfall, suffering alone on the brink of death. The film pays close attention to these moments, viewing them from the perspective of Seita’s ghost. It detaches viewers from the story momentarily, so that we may capture a glimpse of how he reflects on those actions. Sometimes even recoiling in fear, knowing the consequences about to unfold from his doing. In this, Grave of the Fireflies laments how someone’s pride can lead to the destruction of others and themselves.
The film strives to tug at each of our heartstrings, numerous times for what both children must go through, while also lending some commentary on Japan’s fervent sense of nationalism during those times; critical of one’s pride and dignity to dangerous extents. Crafted by a master hand, it’s a movie that knows what it wishes to be and sets out to achieve that. However, in reality this does not always come true. It’s obvious to see why fans enjoy Grave of the Fireflies to the extent they do: it succeeded in eliciting strong emotions that few others probably ever had. But to talk about a film aspiring for such a personal experience, I feel the need to explain mine.
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Grave of the Fireflies was a sad, depressing film, even on the sheer surface. Witnessing the two leads placed in a terrible predicament alone put me in a sad, state of mind. The pair are extremely easy to feel sorry for, especially knowing how their story ends from the start. I cried. Tears welled up watching the final sequence, Setsuko and her belongings being cremated out in the open. Feeling the pain her brother must’ve gone through. Those feelings were real and knowing that events like this happen in the world today didn’t help me. It was the first time I could remember crying from a movie, leaving me devastated as the credits rolled. The fireflies had risen, burned the brightest they possibly could have, before returning to darkness, leaving me there as well. That was the first time I watched Grave of the Fireflies.
The second time I watched Grave of the Fireflies, it had once again surprised me, but for reasons that were perplexing. It was still very sad and depressing, but ultimately left me feeling unsatisfied with the experience. Nothing in the film had changed, in fact I still remembered most of the key events that happened along with when they would take place. However this time the film lacked my investment and the sentiments I once had for each of those moments was no longer there. Rewatching the film even years later highlighted certain aspects that I had initially glossed over, not having already been acquainted with the story and characters. The hand that once tugged my heartstring no longer caught me by surprise, and the beats this film played to was a tune I had become familiar with. This was Grave of the Fireflies’ biggest weakness. For a film that enlightens more on a second viewing, loses what made it so special in the first place.
Looking at the film with a critical eye will surely find themes of morality at play but will also find them presented in ways visibly forced and heavy-handed. In a world where two children are just trying to survive in a country torn by war, there are so many instances shown in the film that could have saved both from their terrible ends. But the story will always take the worst option every single time to reach its miserable end, to the point where it’s no longer natural watching this play out. The film continuously tries to milk tears from the audience with a tragedy that constantly makes the worst decisions for its characters. It’s akin to piling tragic event on top of tragic event until we’re left with a mountain of depression, while my reaction moves from genuine sympathy to frustration and disappointment. We as viewers look at this film from the same perspective as Seita’s ghost, and while this does emphasize the meaning behind these moments, it essentially removes part of the deep emotion gained from the experience, causing the repetitive nature of these events to feel counterproductive. We see the storyline in full, from establishing its grieving tone to forcing Seita and Setsuko into the film’s personal martyrs. Their deaths, for our pity.
Regardless of how closely the narrative revolves around these two characters, neither of the pair hold much intrigue outside of being victims. Child characters don’t need a tale of heroism for audiences to get invested in them, but the only attributes Seita and Setsuko have to garner one’s investment is that they’re children who exist as casualties. Seita does possess a few qualities worth mentioning; he holds a strong impression of idealism for his father and while he’s away fighting in the war, Seita bears the responsibility for caring over his younger sister. Except that arduous task is put on a brother that appears as immature as his younger sibling. To Seita, taking care of Setsuko means to play with her all the time and keep her happy, no matter how cruel the world around her can be. His actions are foolish and the film does punish him over them, however I still find his mindset somewhat contrived given the circumstances. Despite how much Seita wants to take care of her sister, he refuses to find work and has no interest helping anyone besides himself and Setsuko. He is stubborn to the bone: even when their health deteriorates and is told to swallow his pride, he refuses to help himself or her sister in a meaningful way. The main reason why most fans overlook this is because of how both feel like authentic children, unaware of the dangers in the world. The animation also helps with this, capturing the nuances and mannerisms one would expect from children. But remember that Seita is supposed to be a 14-year-old boy in the 1940’s, a time where he would be considered an adult capable of working for a living. He’s relatable to us because of how we would view someone of that age but comes across incompetent for someone from his time.
These issues stuck out like a sore thumb on second viewing, partly due to how simplistic the film feels in its presentation. Grave of the Fireflies is often seen as the Ghibli feature to break away from the conventional family-friendly films the studio has produced, and while it does deliver on an unflinching war film not suitable for all ages, it also just so happens to lack the whimsical spirit that gave those other films such striking personality. Takahata has his strengths, from his interest in realistic imagery to his sense of social responsibility as a director, yet here his style feels neutered to a point where little personality can be found in the directing. He’s not Miyazaki, but the film appears contempt in what it wants to achieve, never aiming for more than the core emotional attachment felt though the script. Each scene is carefully calculated, but never ambitious in their purpose. Even the cheerful moments only balance out the hell Seita and Setsuko are in, never acting as driving components for either character. The music also does little to help the experience move along, rarely ever effective in smoothing out transitions or amplifying sentiment in an authentic way. It unironically makes the most emotional moments come off more canned than real. At the end of the day, the presentation may look very pretty, especially when it comes to the animation, but otherwise is rather insignificant when building on the emotional side of the film.
I feel conflicted when trying to summarise my thoughts on Grave of the Fireflies. It has some very noticeable problems that I take issue with, but it’s far from a bad film in my eyes. On the contrary, I would call it a fairly good movie that I unfortunately feel numb towards now, no longer jaded by the emotional appeal that obfuscates the maladroit aspects of the movie. The fact that it tried so hard to appeal through emotions and failed only disappoints me that much more. It’s an odd contrast for me to ponder over: a film I loved at first no long holds any fondness from me. It tugged at my heartstrings, but no longer has any effect. My experience with Grave of the Fireflies at first was special; depressing yet executed with such elegance that made the journey worth the heartbreak. But that feeling could not be rekindled here. Part of me is sad coming to this conclusion, but there is a silver lining. Instead of searching for that exact feeling again, I’ve coming to respect and appreciate what I got to experience the first time. I’m happy to have at least experienced this film once, than never at all.
'The fireflies rose, burned ever so brightly, before slowly returning to darkness.'
Rest in Peace, Isao Takahata. (1935-2018)