On this edition of Creations of Chaos, it’s the most depressingly haunting film ever animated. It’s Studio Ghibli’s, Grave of the Fireflies.
Director: Isao Takahata
Writer: Isao Takahata
Date Released: 1988
Version Watched: English Dubbed
I purchased Grave of the Fireflies after hearing it discussed on the Filmspotting podcast. I set the DVD on a shelf, waiting for a day when I would be “in the mood” to watch it. I knew what Grave of the Fireflies was about. I knew how it ended. It was sheer lunacy to think that I would ever be in a mood to watch it. It remained unwatched on the shelf for years.
When I set out on the quest to watch and discuss every Studio Ghibli film, I knew every film would have to include Grave of the Fireflies. I am grateful for the quest. I’m not sure anything else would have compelled me to finally muster up the courage to sit through this film.
Band-Aid Rip Off
First, let’s rip off the plot band-aid.
Fourteen-year-old Seita and his four-year-old sister Setsuko’s Japanese town is fire bombed during World War II. The town is completely decimated, and their mother dies from injuries sustained during the attack.
With their father off fighting in the navy (and eventually killed), the children move in with an Aunt. Hardened by the war, the Aunt becomes more and more resentful of the two extra mouths to feed, and becomes belligerent to the point that Seita decides that he and Setsuko can survive on their own. The problem is, he is devastatingly wrong, and the two starve to death instead.
The Blame Game
With any inconceivable atrocity, my first reaction is to figure out who is to blame. As I watched Grave of the Fireflies, my pointing finger continuously shifted.
The Aunt: Blame could be put on the Aunt for her ill-treatment of the children, but you can partially understand her side of things. She, like everyone else, must make great sacrifices during wartime. She takes in two children who have lived comfortably up until this point, and are having difficulty understanding the fact that resources are limited, and they must now make sacrifices like everyone else.
I think the Aunt could have been more patient. I think she should have checked up on the kids after they left, but ultimately, I think she was just doing the best she was capable of doing.
Seita: Being the older brother, Seita should have done more to care for his little sister. He is an “in the moment” kind of person. He doesn’t seem to be able to plan.
I cringed when they first set up their little cave house and are able to obtain a large quantity of food. Instead of carefully rationing their supplies, the two have a feast.
I yelled at the television as Seita was stealing from the farmer, then eating all of the vegetables instead of trying to save some to grow. His lack of resourcefulness and his stubbornness to not return to his Aunt, even when his sister was dying, was frustrating.
In the end, I had to remember that Seita was only 14, and until he learned that his father was most likely dead, it wasn’t unusual that he assumed the war would be won soon, his father would return home, and things would be all right.
All he had to do was hold out a little longer. It is not fair to expect him to make adult decisions, or to have an adult understanding of war, with an adolescent brain.
Other Adults: As Setsuko becomes increasingly ill, Seita takes her to the doctor. The doctor tells Seita that all Setsuko needs is food, but offers no help of any kind. Likewise, instead of taking pity on a kid who is just trying to feed his starving sister, the farmer who Seita steals from, beats the boy and takes him to the authorities.
At first, I couldn’t understand why the adults weren’t helping. It became clear however, that they were struggling just to keep themselves and their families alive. They had nothing extra to give.
War: In the end I pointed my finger most at war. Specifically the people who made the decision that the best way to get a government’s attention was to kill hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. That decision ultimately led to children, who barely have a concept of war, dying.
I’m not going to lie, watching Grave of the Fireflies is a painful experience. It is unrelentingly sad. It will reduce you to a pile of tears, and yet I believe that it should be mandatory viewing. Once seen, it is a film that can never be un-seen. You can never un-see the man at the train station poking Seita’s lifeless body with a stick. You can never un-see Setsuko handing her brother rocks that she thinks are potatoes due to her delirium.
I think it’s important to see, because during times of war, governments can paint skewed pictures of “the enemy,” like this propaganda.
In reality, most of “the enemy” consists of ordinary people caught up in something they did not ask for. There may be no better representation of this than the story of Seita and Setsuko. Maybe if every person was made to watch the film at least once, they would hold the image of that dying little girl in their mind. Then one day if they are the person in charge of making big, destructive decisions, that image may make them think twice. Wishful thinking? Maybe.
When people try to talk you into watching Grave of the Fireflies, they will admit its bleakness, but will then extol its beauty. The animation is stunning.
You would think that an animated film would give the suffering less of an impact, but I think that the purity and innocence of the medium of animation makes it all the more disturbing.
If it wasn’t for the fact that you know how the story ends, the tender, happier, scenes between brother and sister would be heartwarming instead of heartbreaking.
After I had a good cry, I was glad I finally watched Grave of the Fireflies. I felt a sense of accomplishment akin to climbing a mountain. It is a film everyone should see once. Just have your handkerchief in hand.