Oct 9, 2019
MysticSmilez (All reviews)
I finally decided to watch Grave of the Fireflies. Admittedly, this is a film that I should have viewed a long time ago, given its influence and importance to the medium. Studio Ghibli has long been known to create works that carry subtle but profound messages while employing the use of gorgeous visuals, and “Hotaru no Haka” is certainly no exception. Although I am sure that by now the conversation surrounding its themes and delivery has been well exhausted, I wanted to contribute my own opinions; if only to express how compelling it was to me. This review contains discussions of key plot points.

Interestingly enough, director Isao Takahata claimed that this is not an anti-war film, and rather it is a story more focused on the bond between brother and sister, as well as the difficulties they must face while attempting to live outside of society. Despite this, I still can’t help but feel that this film does offer an anti-war message, as the images of death and destruction are a constant force throughout. Seita and Setsuko would not have to endure such hardship if it were not for the catastrophe of war. I can still certainly see why Takahata would believe this, however, as the war ultimately serves as a backdrop for a complex meditation on relationships between people, as well as Japanese attitudes and culture.

I do not claim to be particularly knowledgeable on such subjects, but the tensions around these concepts become more apparent as the narrative carefully unravels. It is clear that Seita holds a deep admiration for his his father, as well as the strength of the Japanese empire, denoted by his devastation at the news of Japan’s unconditional surrender. As such, Seita has high expectations for himself, even before shouldering the responsibility of caring for Setsuko. As the two flee their home during the film’s initial air raid, Seita stops to grab one item – a photo of his father in military attire. The influence for his behavior is unmistakable, demonstrated through his attempts to maintain an enduring strength for Setsuko’s sake. This contextualizes his stone cold reaction to the image of his mother’s destroyed body. He associates courage with the serious and sober image of his father.

It is unlikely that Seita understands the wider implications of war. Regardless, he takes it upon himself to be a source of strength and hope for his sister, in a vain attempt to shield her from the horrors that follow in its wake. For this purpose, he wishes to withhold the truth of their mother’s fate from her as long as possible. Despite his efforts, Setsuko bears witness to the atrocities herself, with even less understanding – most clearly demonstrated when she finds a corpse on the beach and asks if the man is sleeping. Further, Setsuko’s admission that she is aware of their mother’s death affects Seita to the point of tears, as he feels he has failed in his mission.

Seita’s decision to abandon the shelter of his aunt’s home is the most hotly contested act of the film; the reason being that many people are frustrated by his stubbornness. It is understandable that people would find this unwillingness to admit his own weakness to be a frustrating aspect of Seita’s character – but I find that it is the most crucial part of this film. Whether or not he wants to admit it himself, Seita is a child. Given that he has had to endure the loss of his mother, the continued absence of correspondence from his father, as well as the care of his sister, Seita is overwhelmed beyond his capabilities. Their aunt, callously indifferent towards the two children, seeks to exploit their situation as a means to secure her own immediate needs. Though it is subtle, her demand that Seita contribute to society further inflates his perception of his own responsibilities.

There is no doubt that it was a bad decision for the two to leave their aunt’s home to try to live on their own, and even worse judgment on Seita’s part for refusing to return. But this is precisely the crux of this film. Seita’s stubbornness is perpetuated by a multitude of factors, particularly the alienation from his aunt and his perception of his responsibilities. Maybe there was some truth to what she said. Perhaps there is no time to pacify children during such bleak times. I do not believe that this film seeks to blame a single agent for its tragedy, but rather present a complex web of cultural beliefs, relationships, and actions. We are aware from the very beginning what tragedy will occur; it is never a mystery. As the narrative unfolds, we simply become more aware of the circumstances that allowed such a tragedy. Seita is at least partially culpable, but I think it is incorrect to have him shoulder the absolute blame for their deaths.

This is a film I could easily rate a “10” if I was not so picky with how I distribute such ratings, as if it matters at all. It is complicated and beautiful, but also easy to appreciate in many regards. Naturally, Ghibli delivers on the animation, which I have neglected to discuss in length. Although it is tragic in nature, there is a solemn beauty to its execution. The relationship between the two siblings is unfettered and whole throughout. There is an absolute love and trust between the two of them that serves as a faint but powerful light amongst the images of destruction and despair. It is reasonable to find blame in Seita and to be frustrated with his actions, but after my viewing, I believe there is more to be considered than just the blundering of a child.