Studio Ghibli, home to the celebrated director Hayao Miyazaki, has produced several well-loved animated films during its near 30-year existence, including My Neighbor Tortoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. While some of these have a lighter feel, the 1988 release Grave Of The Fireflies is a much darker movie (originally released as part of a double bill with Tortoro in Japan), and despite being underrated it is arguably one of the studio’s finest achievements to date.
Fireflies – based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka and directed by Takahata Isao – tells the story of a 14 year-old boy named Seita (voiced originally by Tsutomu Tatsumi) and his younger sister Setsuko (Ayano Shiraishi) as they struggle to survive in war-torn Japan at the end of the Second World War. Seita’s narrative details the pair’s struggles in and around the city of Kobe, where they try to stay alive despite the near-constant firebombing of the city by the US military. After their family home is burned to the ground Seita and Setsuko discover that their mother has suffered horrific burns elsewhere in the city, and she dies shortly thereafter. Their father is away, serving in the Japanese Navy, so the two move in with a distant aunt.
As food becomes scarcer the aunt becomes resentful of Seita and Setsuko’s presence, so the pair eventually decide to leave. Travelling without an adult guardian, they find a makeshift shelter, but Seita is forced to steal food from local farmers when his sister begins to show signs of malnutrition. Meanwhile, Japan surrenders unconditionally to the Allied Forces and Seita realises their father has probably died during the Navy’s final battles.
* The first line of the film is from Seita: “September 21, 1945 … that was the night I died.”
There’s no two ways about it: the subject matter is grim; Grave Of The Fireflies is one of the most depressing films I have ever sat through, and it is a sobering reminder of the experiences faced by millions of civilians worldwide during the Second World War. The tragedy that befalls this pair of children is heartbreaking, even if it is peppered with occasional moments of childish joy and innocence, and few animated films would dare to show such an ordeal without incorporating a happy ending or at least some degree of sentimentality. Yet here the film’s prologue reveals straight away that they both die young*, and the struggle to stave off the inevitable clutches of death forms the basis of the movie. Knowing that they are doomed at the outset makes watching their story even sadder.
The scenes depicting the two deaths, which bookend the film, are masterful, and indicate just how powerful animation can be (I cry very rarely while watching films – Han Solo frozen in carbonite and ET departing being examples from my younger days – but the last film I shed a few tears to was Pete Docter’s Up, the opening sequence of which remains one of the saddest ten minutes in movie history). Setsuko’s death in particular here is a harrowing sequence; the mind is almost tricked by decades of child-friendly animation into believing that the young character will suddenly stand up and start running around again, cheating the hand she has been dealt. But it doesn’t happen. Oddly it’s worth more than a thousand-and-one live action movie deaths.
* Seita eventually dies of starvation, Setsuko of malnutrition.
What’s interesting is the part that food plays in all of this. Food is an ever-present symbol in the film, despite its apparent scarcity, and rarely a minute goes by without a scene that incorporates the sourcing or sharing of rice, fruit, or vegetables.* The oppressive hum of the planes and their falling bombs (and subsequent fires) may be the first threat they face, but that soon gives way to a more consistent threat to their health: a distinct lack of provisions. After losing their parents Seita and Setsuko are left to fend for themselves and they are failed by all of the other adults in the film, who are so preoccupied by events surrounding the fall of the Japanese Empire they have little time or sympathy for these kids. As well as family members even trusted figures like doctors and policemen refuse to help or act as obstacles in some way or other. The war ends up being more of a secondary, background cause for their suffering, and it is arguably a breakdown in the normal order of a functioning society that eventually causes the deaths of these children.
Grave Of The Fireflies has been hailed as a very successful anti-war movie, and though it is concerned with fighting to a certain extent, its focus is as much on the economical and mental effects of war on a civilian population as it is on the physical suffering. The film deals only with personal tragedy, and does not engage at all with the relative political rights and wrongs of the two warring factions. With two children as the main characters it could be argued that it is slightly cynical in the way that it pushes the emotional buttons of viewers, but the film overall feels like a sincere attempt to engage with war and cannot be accused of being sensationalist (and, in reality, applying the same plight to two adults ought to be no less upsetting for a viewer to watch). This depiction of war is not a cartoon adventure; there is no heroism on show, save for Seita’s willingness to take on responsibility and, as the older sibling, ensure the pair find stay safe.
Despite this, the director himself has repeatedly denied that the film is specifically an anti-war movie. He has maintained that there is no anti-war message in the film (which is a little hard to accept) and that his intention was to highlight the pain and suffering that many of Japan’s elders had endured during the war so that modern day teenagers and young adults would show them more respect and consider how lucky they in turn are (or were, given that the film was release over 25 years ago).
I can’t really argue against his intentions, but I still believe this is an anti-war film, even if it has unintentionally become one. If a film deals with the concept of heroism during wartime and celebrates conflict it is potentially a pro-war film. If a film glorifies conflict but also studies the effects it has on soldiers, politicians or a nation’s citizens, then it’s likely to be ambivalent or anti-war. But neither of these descriptions could apply to this anime. From the first scene to the last, Grave Of The Fireflies feels like it has been designed to make its viewers feel as bad about the collateral damage of war as possible, and it does this very well. And it should be celebrated for this achievement.
Here, Studio Ghibli’s excellent and groundbreaking animation fits the subject matter perfectly. According to Takahata, traditionally animators in Japan were not allowed to depict the country in a realistic manner, but there is a grim realism here that hasn’t been re-visited in Ghibli’s later films, which are far more colourful and fantastical. Here many of the illustration outlines are in brown, a choice made in order to give the animation a softer feel; this had never been done in anime before.
In recent years there have been excellent, mature animated films dealing with conflict, notably Vincent Paronnaud’s Persepolis and Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir. Both of these have been influenced by Takahata’s masterful storytelling and his approach to animating warfare. Roger Ebert was moved to describe Fireflies as ‘the greatest war film ever made’ which is high praise coming from a man who was, more often than not, extremely careful with the words he used when reviewing films.
It is hard to think of many films that are able to tug at your heartstrings so relentlessly. It may be overwhelmingly bleak at times, but it also has many moments of beauty and positivity, which serves to make the tragic tale resonate even more. Grave Of The Firefiles may be about children, but its approach to tragedy and its examination of survival are very much intended to be contemplated by adults.
Directed by: Takahata Isao
Written by: Akiyuki Nosaka
Starring: Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi
Running Time: 88 minutes