Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Seita and Setsuko amidst the ruins of Kobe.
Seita and Setsuko amidst the ruins of Kobe.

**Contains Spoilers**

When I get interested in a topic – any topic – I take a tumble into a rabbit hole. I try not only to absorb as much as a I can about the particular interest but I also expand my search to things surrounding it – the culture, the food, the history, the art. All of this acts like a marinade – enriching and deepening the subject. This process takes time and is often quite unremarkable but every so often something extraordinary happens, and that is how I feel after watching Grave of the Fireflies.

The film was a gift from my brother. I had heard of it and I was aware of the aura surrounding it. “It’s the saddest animation of all time,” reviews said. I knew the basics of the plot – the firebombing, the isolation, the death – so I felt prepared to watch it. To be honest I was afraid this familiarity would spoil the experience, but oh how wrong was I! Nothing could prepare me for watching Grave of the Fireflies.

The impression made by this film is unforgettable. Already, upon reflection, I can appreciate aspects to the film that were not at first apparent. Do you ever have that experience? I mean usually a film will change with re-watching – impressions and interpretations will either deepen or become more shallow. But I have never experienced anything as profound or as moving as this film. As Roger Ebert described it, “An emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation.”

Japanese cinema poster for Grave of the Fireflies

Grave of the Fireflies follows a brother and sister, Seita and Setsuko, as they attempt to survive in the wake of a devastating firebombing. Their mother dead, their father away at war, their relatives indifferent, the struggle of these two siblings is unlike anything I can think of in any other film. The war has swept away everything they ever knew. One tragic dimension is Setsuko’s innocence and how her brother Seita tries to shield her from reality including, at first, their mother’s death. Many of these scenes are heart rending. Setsuko is wholly innocent, she has nothing to do with the war, but Seita worked in the war effort until his manufacturing plant was destroyed by the bombing. I think this adds an interesting angle to the story. It is about two innocent children yet perhaps one is not quite so innocent as the other. Seita’s awareness of his role in the war can be debated, but under the prevailing attitude of the time – total war – he was considered a combatant, a legitimate target (not that this distinction mattered much to those on either side of the bombing).

“This movie doesn’t move you, it shatters you.”

It has been said that Grave of the Fireflies is the most powerful anti-war film ever made, but I am not so certain that this is the best interpretation. More compelling, I think, is seeing the film as a coming of age story for Seita. His character undergoes the most dramatic transformation of the entire film. Throughout he is the dutiful son who can seemingly do no wrong. He is loyal to a fault to Setsuko, always caring for her, yet it is Seita’s action that (1) alienate the two from their aunt (2) cause them to live apart from Japan’s rationing system and (3) ultimately lead to Setsuko’s death by starvation. It is Seita’s stubborn refusal to admit his failings that leads directly to his sister’s death, and I think this is by far the most interesting dimension to the film: the effect of pride.

tumblr_moem5d6azj1spui9lo2_250From the bombing until Setsuko’s death, Seita does all he can to maintain the illusion that all is well. I think this stems from a brotherly sense of responsibility for his sister. He is trying to act like the adult, to provide all that she needs, but he is incapable of doing so. Take, for example, the need to distract Setsuko from the bad news about their mother’s injury. Seita takes to the play equipment in an attempt to entertain Setsuko, but she is inconsolable. Even as the symptoms of Setsuko’s malnutrition worsen, Seita persists in the illusion that they can survive apart from the rationing system. Yet he refuses to contemplate returning to his aunt’s home. Why? Because to do so would admit his failure. One adult in Seita’s life even tells him to swallow his pride and apologize, but this advice is ignored. All Seita had to do in order for his sister to survive would be to apologize, but he persists in his refusal until it is too late for both of them.

tumblr_muydpx9yby1qffcopo2_250Aside from the main story, there are some aspects to the story worth noting. First, I think, is Seita’s participation in the war effort. This work was, of course, compulsory but I think it provides fodder for discussion about the extent to which those on the so-called home front may be regarded as combatants. My own thinking is that this participation does not justify the bombing, but at the time different attitudes prevailed. While the US maintains that its air forces targeted only industry in Japan (and Europe), the firebombing raids demonstrate that any distinction between combatant and noncombatant was, in practice, meaningless. The entire population of Japan was regarded as fair game for the B-29s and their escorts. As former US defense secretary Robert McNamara observed, had the US lost the war there is no doubt he and his Army Air Corps staff would have been prosecuted as war criminals.

The second aspect I found interesting was the extent to which the war fell into the backdrop for Seita and Setsuko. While the film starts with a firebombing raid and other raids are witnessed throughout the film, the state of things for Japan never really enters into the picture for the main characters. I think this is best demonstrated by Seita’s complete ignorance of the surrender until he goes to the bank to withdraw cash with which to pay for food for his sister. He is shocked by the war’s abrupt ending, caught completely unaware. Finally, it is the fate of his father’s ship, the HIJMS Maya. At the film’s opening and at various points throughout the story, references are made to their father’s whereabouts and silence. Since Grave of the Fireflies takes place between March and September 1945, it is heart rending to learn that their father’s cruiser was sunk in October 1944. This adds another level of loss to the story.

In the words of Ian Krupnik, an Amazon reviewer, “This movie doesn’t move you, it shatters you.”