Grave of the Fireflies (1988) dir. Isao Takahata

28 Sep


A little while back I read somewhere that Grave of the Fireflies was voted number one anime in a poll. When I watched it, the horror of it came as a surprise. It’s not a cuddly animation full of magic and mystery like many are. Some other Studio Ghibli movies have left candy-coated memories in my mind. Their pastel colours and innocent protagonists make me smile at the idea of living in a chalet-barn conversion surrounded by flowers (which was where I lived when my Studio Ghibli phase happened). If anime is your kind of entertainment, you may enjoy it. You might see other anime movies that you prefer though.

Grave of the Fireflies is set during the Second World War. We see Seita slumped against a pillar, relieved to finally be dead, on 21st September 1945. Then a cleaner throws away a candy box he finds in Seita’s pocket. Suddenly we’re enchanted by on-screen glowing fireflies, much romanticised, a sublime encounter with forces of nature. When they go, we’re back in happier times – well, still it’s wartime. An air raid siren has sounded. Seita quickly buries the valuables in the garden, an act that both saves his life and contains some irony, as he resorts to theft of valuables during later air raids to stay alive. That the mother dashes off to the air raid shelter, leaving her two kids behind to follow, could be implausible. But frankly it’s Japan. The children weave their way through the fire-bombing of Kobe only to survive.

Possibly the mother should’ve stayed with her offspring. She was less fortunate and got caught in the bombings. Badly wounded, she passes away. Seita keeps the news of her death a secret from his little sister, Setsuko. They go to an aunt’s house. She offers them a room. But they quickly outstay their welcome by not being useful enough. Setsuko keeps crying and Seita isn’t at an age where he’s capable of taking command of the social situation. He could try to look like he wants to keep the aunt happy. He could apologise and do as she asks. But he doesn’t. His stubborn ways infuriate the aunt and her family more and more. She takes the mother’s kimono to exchange for rice. Rations are applicable. Food is in shortage. She tells Seita to feed himself. She doesn’t give him any rice.

After finding a means to acquire his own rice, Seita and Setsuko find a shelter next to a lake to create a makeshift house. At night they capture fireflies, the glow from which they use to see by. The following morning, Setsuko buries the tiny firefly bodies in a grave. They feed themselves at first by trading their stuff with a farmer. Next, when rations are stricter, they resort to theft, waiting until the raids to operate unnoticed. Setsuko grows increasingly sick; Seita takes her to a doctor. He confirms what we already know: she needs a decent meal. Seita leaves her temporarily to go and find money to buy food. While he’s away he discovers that Japan has surrendered. It’s also mentioned that none of the Japanese navy remains, which means his father – his beacon of hope – has died too. When he returns to Setsuko, she dies. He cremates her body and puts her ashes in a candy box. The End.

You can do quite a lot in an animation that would be too saddening or disturbing if produced in the supposed real world using photography. Body parts, maggots on corpses, a child with malnutrition impacts with less shock when drawn. Scenes like the smoldering city. Depressing imagery, isn’t it? What purpose does it serve? I can’t help but think that the movie must be an allegory. It’s certainly left that taste. After giving it some consideration, let’s see how World War II itself fits.

The key issue is that Seita refuses to live on his aunt’s terms and apologise. He and Setsuko have invaded her house. They’ve also lost their mother. Japan before WWII began to lose its traditions. Japan invaded China and Vietnam, the Dutch East Indies. Japan refused to do what the rest of the world wanted it to in the quest for imperialism and domination. Yes, there’s definitely something allegoric.

So, if we explore, what’s the exchanging the kimono for rice about? Well, if the kimono symbolises traditions or beliefs and rice: power, the Japanese were impressing their beliefs on the rest of Asia in exchange for power juxtaposed by the West. But the rest of Asia became empowered by the West. Not Japan. And the starvation and death of Setsuko? Traditions like wearing a kimono began to lose hold. Some traditions were unsustained and have died out. Eventually Japan itself – as it was before the war – has died out through a lack of sustaining tradition and also through the extensive rebuilding and modernisation that occurred as a consequence of the firebombing.The fireflies are like the Japanese people during wartime, taken against their will and serving a purpose by shedding light, working together to enlighten the nation. Also fireflies burn bright until they dispose of life. Their lives mean as much as that.

Here is a link to the whole movie.


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