After the success of Laputa: Castle in the Sky, the next two films from Studio Ghibli were released as a double bill feature – Grave of the Fireflies, directed by Isao Takahata, and My Neighbour Totoro, directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Both films went on to become critical successes, despite the double bill being off-putting, leading to box office failure: almost complete opposites in themes and character. Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies is a beautiful, harrowing film about the struggle to survive and adapt in a time of war, whilst Miyazaki’s Totoro is also a stunning film about living in harmony with nature and the idyll of childhood. Perhaps the only thing they have in common is their focus on children and how they adapt to their circumstances and environment.
Original Release: 16th April 1988.
Director(s): Isao Takahata.
Producer(s): Toru Hara.
Screenwriter(s): Isao Takahata, based on the short story by Akiyuki Nosaka.
Grave of the Fireflies is based on a semi-autobiographical short story by Akiyuki Nosaka. Set in the city of Kobe in Japan, it follows the story of two siblings – a teenage brother, Seita, and his little sister, Setsuko, as they struggle to survive in the aftermath of the incendiary bombing of Kobe. Their father is away fighting in the Japanese Navy, and their mother becomes a victim of the bombing, which ravages the city and burns all the traditional wooden and paper buildings.
Seita makes a series of decisions that ultimately sets the siblings on a tragic path. The film begins shortly after the ending of the Second World War, in September 1945, with a sombre and heart-breaking scene, setting the tone for the rest of the film. We see Seita’s death from starvation in a train station, surrounded by other dead and dying people (presumably also dying of similar causes). After he dies, the janitor of the station picks up an empty tin of sweets that Seita was holding, throws it into a field, and Setsuko’s spirit springs from it, along with a cloud of fireflies and Seita’s spirit. Seita begins to narrate the events leading up to his death, and the story begins.
The film is a tightly focused story about what happens when war forces people to make decisions, often rash and painful ones, that make it a struggle to survive. Initially, after the death of their mother, Seita and Setsuko travel to their aunt’s. At first, he doesn’t tell either his aunt or Setsuko that their mother is dead; he didn’t want to upset Setsuko. When his aunt learns the news, her behaviour changes – subtly, at first, then she becomes resentful at what she perceives as Seita’s lack of effort towards either getting a job or helping with the war effort – rationing was in full force in the last few months of the war, and good food was difficult to come by.
She suggests that they sell their mother’s kimonos, at which point Setsuko cottons on and realises that their mother is dead. The kimonos are sold for what must have seemed like a lot of rice, but from a modern perspective was barely anything. The hostility between Seita and his aunt reaches boiling point and he makes the rash decision to move out with Setsuko to live in an abandoned bomb shelter next to a lake. At first, they manage to survive on the rest of the rice, but when that runs out, Seita is forced to steal, leading to a couple of run-ins with a local farmer, and eventually to his arrest.
He is released, but he realises what a desperate predicament they are in, and understands he needs to look after Setsuko better as she is becoming increasingly ill and malnourished. After a terrible visit to the doctor, Seita withdraws the rest of the money his mother had left them, and uses it to buy food and supplies. As he queues at the bank, he learns that Japan has surrendered, and that his father is likely also dead since most of the Japanese navy troops had drowned. Distraught, he returns to Setsuko to make her food, but she is hallucinating and dies soon after. He cremates her body, and puts her ashes in the sweet tin, along with the photograph he has of his father.
The title of the film alludes to the fireflies that fill the air in the evenings around the lake. The first night of their stay in the bomb shelter, they bring some fireflies into the shelter, but the next day, they are all dead. Setsuko buries them in a heaped grave, which gives Seita a flashback to the mass grave where their mother was buried. The fireflies seem to be a metaphor for many things throughout the film – the fragility of life, the buzzing bomber planes high up in the sky, the shortness of Seita and Setsuko’s lives. The metaphor infuses the film with a mood of fleeting life, but also bittersweet joy.
There are some wonderful moments of connection and happiness in Seita and Setsuko’s life together in those last few months. Before starvation sets in, they play around together in the environment, and Seita makes Setsuko a swing. He tells her bedtime stories, and they do what they can to make life lighter, including rationing the tin of fruit drops that becomes a repository for Setsuko’s ashes. These moments, though, only serve to emphasise the precarious nature of their living habits, because Seita chooses to steal from farmers and from houses during air raids, rather than swallowing his pride and going back to their aunt. He sets them apart from the community, refusing to take part in society, isolating the two of them from people who may be able to help.
Though their aunt’s judgemental and resentful attitude was painful to witness, there was a modicum of truth – in times of war and disruption, community is important for survival. Seita isn’t necessarily a hero, and though you can understand his desperation and single mindedness in looking after and providing for his little sister, he is also stealing from families in a time of severe rationing. The film shows how, in times of war, humanity becomes eroded. People lose their sense of what it means to be compassionate and kind, their sensitivity to pain and to catastrophe, because they experience immense horror, death, and destruction every day. Seita’s decisions have an impact on Setsuko’s survival, and by the time he realises his mistakes, it’s too late.
I found the film intensely heartbreaking to watch – this was my second viewing – I first watched it ten years ago. It’s a beautiful film, with skillful animation and thoughtful themes that stay with you after the credits roll. It has a 12 certificate viewing guidance, and I wouldn’t recommend it for children. It is, however, a must-watch, because it raises questions and shows you how thin a line there is between life and death decisions, especially in a time of war. Takahata doesn’t believe his film is anti-war, and though it isn’t overtly carrying an anti-war message, it does deal with the loss of life, pain, and devastating destruction of bombing, war, and violence.
Next up is My Neighbour Totoro – one of my favourite Ghibli films, and one of the most popular Japanese anime films in the world.