Grave of the Fireflies, 1988.
Directed by Isao Takahata.
Featuring the voice talents of J. Robert Spencer, Rhoda Chrosite, Amy Jones and Veronica Taylor.
A boy and his younger sister struggle to survive in war-torn Japan during World War II.
"Yes, it's a cartoon, and the kids have eyes like saucers, but it belongs on any list of the greatest war films ever made." -Roger Ebert
Seita is a pre-teenager in Japan who has just lived through World War Two. The film opens on him as he slowly passes away, homeless and starving in a train station. His war is over as he utters “Setsuko” with his last breath. He whispers it in the same way Kane spoke ‘Rosebud’. The camera tracks back as two janitors start to tidy him away. The shot’s increased scope reveals many more like him, supported by the station’s numerous pillars. Commuters consider them a nuisance.
Seita takes a ghostly red form and begins to wonder through his life during the war. Grave of the Fireflies is animated, so these moments aren’t ruined by warped special effects. Those at Studio Ghibli imbue more humanity in their subjects than most live action films can muster with their claims to truth. Seita boards a train that will proceed to call at events in his past. It’s so he can understand what has happened and how he ended the way he did. Only then can he finally be free of his guilt.
These flashbacks start at Seita’s home with his mother and young sister. The latter is his ‘rosebud’ – five-year-old Setsuko. The comforts of home and family are in stark contrast to the previous opening scene of Seita’s death. American planes are dropping napalm canisters over their city. Most of the homes are built from wood. They never stood a chance.
Seita and Setsuko become separated from their mother during the air raid. They take cover away from the city and are unharmed, but their mother sat like a duck in the local shelter. They reunite at a makeshift hospital in a levelled city that doesn’t have enough medicine or staff. Seita’s mother is so badly injured, it wouldn’t make a difference if they did. She looks as though her eyes have been seared clean off. Her lips are two swollen sausages and her skin is replaced with blood-soaked bandages. Seita doesn’t let Setsuko see. He tells her that mother’s quite ill so they’re off to stay with their aunt. Seita has decided to shoulder the pain exclusively, and he continues this way until his death. His protectiveness appears noble now, but will become selfish and harmful soon. As they leave we see mother’s body being lifted upon a bonfire. Maggots and flies already feast away.
Their aunt holds a grudge against the orphans. Seita and Setsuko come from a military family, living with more generous rations than their relatives. That Seita and Setsuko do nothing but play like children all day also frustrates the aunt. Her husband and daughter work constantly to support the war effort. But what can the brother and sister do? Their mother has just died and are without a home. Their father is a Navy man from who they haven’t heard in so long. Go to school, their aunt insensitively suggests. It burnt down, replies Setsuko.
By default, Seita is now the head of the family. A very small family, but at least he still has that. Exhausted by the pestering aunt, he pawns his mother’s clothes and withdraws the family savings so he can support Setsuko alone. They find an abandoned air raid shelter near a lake and, like children playing ‘house’, plan the rooms of their new home.
Money, however, quickly becomes worthless as the Japanese currency falters. It’s all about trading needed item for needed item now. As they live outside the system, in their cave by a river, Seita and Setsuko aren’t entitled to food rations. Setsuko begins to show signs of illness. She scratches a lot and has sores on her back. Sometimes she faints. Dependent child characters often become tiresome or annoying. Not Setsuko. It’s the way she’s drawn clutching her doll and wearing her hat. She’s so endearing and helpless you want to rescue her yourself. It’s why Seita’s relationship with her is so heartbreaking.
She becomes delirious from hunger, chewing marbles and making rice cakes out of mud. Seita does all he can to save her. He takes food from people’s empty houses during air raids and steals fruit from farmer’s fields. But he never considers going back to his aunt, even when their situation becomes increasingly desperate. She’s a horrible woman, but she could have saved them.
It’s almost as though it’s because of a hidden selfishness. Seita has invested all his loss, of his home, mother and father, into caring for Setsuko. If he lets someone else take over, or even merely share, he would have failed her and his deceased family. His love is smothering, but he does everything for that girl. He’s only a kid – how’s he supposed to know any better?
The film itself is based on a semi-autobiographical novel. The author lost his sister to malnutrition at the end of the war too, but unlike Seita, he survived. He blamed himself for his sister’s death and wrote the book to make amends.
This is the one Studio Ghibli film for which Disney does not hold the distribution rights. The book’s publishers do. It’s fitting, in a way. Grave of the Fireflies should to be separate from the rest of Ghibli’s canon.
There’s no overt anti-war agenda because the story is such a human one. These aren’t soldiers or politicians, they’re civilians. But in focusing on and attempting to deal with such a personal tragedy, Grave of the Fireflies becomes as powerful a statement against war as Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth or Roberto Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero.
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