In 1988, Studio Ghibli released two films as part of a double-feature, and while the two couldn’t be any more different, it was clear why they were paired together: to showcase how Japanese animation could be used for other methods beyond the fast-paced action and pulpy thrills that were almost synonymous with the genre.
One of those films, My Neighbor Totoro, was an exercise in tranquility and innocence, influenced by the works of Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi. The other, Grave of the Fireflies, had far bigger ambitions. It was an animated film that was based on a true story, set in the historical period of WWII-era Japan, and dead set on emotionally destroying any unknowing viewer to discover it.
Animated or otherwise, Isao Takahata’s masterpiece is one of the most profound anti-war statements ever brought to cinema, and the most ironic thing about it is that every single thing it does to avoid being manipulative—the opening scene that gives away how the story ends right away, the animation that makes even the grittiest images look graceful and beautiful—just makes it that much more devastating. It successfully proved that animation can make and even strengthen a pure, adult drama.
When the film was released, despite being less famous than My Neighbor Totoro, it was arguably the more revolutionary work. Critics from around the globe were forced to reconsider their very notions of animated film. Roger Ebert was one of those critics, saying of the film, “Grave of the Fireflies is an emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation.” Of course, he makes sure to mention that other animated films such as Bambi and The Lion King may have dipped their toes in serious themes, but “these films exist within safe confines; they inspire tears, but not grief.” This is a film rife in that grief. As he so perfectly put it, “Grave of the Fireflies is a powerful dramatic film that happens to be animated.”
“September 21st, 1945… That was the night I died.”
Grave of the Fireflies has what I believe to be one of the greatest opening scenes of all time. It’s so perfect, in fact, that I want to open this retrospective entry with an entire section devoted to this sequence.
The film opens with a line that’s being uttered by the disembodied voice of a teenage boy in an army uniform. “September 21st, 1945… That was the night I died.” The boy, named Seita, looks at a nearby column, where he sees himself dying of hunger in the middle of what appears to be a train station. Hundreds of people pass by him without giving him much thought or even assistance. One person, in an act of pity rather than kindness, places some food by him, but by then it’s too late. He slouches over, and collapses. He hears the voice of a young girl—his little sister—in his head, and the final words to run through his mind are “What day is it?”
Only two janitors inhabit the area once the station is closed. A different camera angle reveals to the audience that there are actually more starved corpses lying around the station, and Seita is only one of them. One of the janitors goes to his body and discovers an empty candy tin on Seita’s person. Told to just throw it out, the janitor takes the tin and chucks it out towards the dark. The tin falls by a field of tall grass and weeds, and the second it lands on the ground, fireflies materialize from the darkness, creating a red, blazing glow that brightens the field.
The score by Michio Mamiya (the first composer not named Joe Hisaiashi to work for Ghibli) settles in as a figure emerges from the weeds. It’s Seita’s younger sister, the 5 year old Setsuko, and while there’s not a single thing about her except the glow of the fireflies to suggest it, we know right away that she’s a ghost.
The first thing she sees is the corpse of her older brother. She tries to run towards him, but is stopped by a hand reaching out to her shoulder. Setsuko turns around. Her brother, smiling and no longer in pain, is now with her. She smiles, he lovingly wipes the dust off her clothing and then kneels down to pick up the candy tin. As soon as he touches it, the rusted tin rejuvenates to its original, pristine state. The weariness of the past has been erased. He hands the tin to her, they hold hands, and both gently saunter off to the next life. Cue title. Grave of the Fireflies.
I love this opening for many reasons, most notably because of Mamiya’s haunting score. The other main reason is because, on a screenwriting level, it’s brilliantly efficient. There’s the age old debate on what makes a film “manipulative” or “authentic”, and this opening sort of blurs the lines between the two.
On the one hand, by getting the outcomes of our characters’ fates out of the way, there’s no way the shock of its ending can really manipulate because it was revealed to us upfront (no Marley & Me tactics being employed here). At the same time, you could also argue it’s incredibly manipulative because it laces the entire rest of the film with a sense of fatalism. Their fates loom over every action these characters make over the remainder of the movie. A triumphant scene in which Seita and Setsuko successfully buy their own food, for instance, becomes all the more tragic when we remember that they’re both going to starve to death anyway.
For a while, I wrestled with whether or not that truly did make the film manipulative or just all the more truthful of the realities of wartime, until I finally realized the purpose of the opening. It ultimately doesn’t matter whether or not the film manipulates or not, because what mattered was that I was moved to tears either way. It honestly doesn’t matter whether this or any film, for that matter, manipulates, so long as it does so successfully and gracefully, which one can argue that this movie does.
But I digress. After that perfect opening scene, we get to the main plot, which follows the brother-sister pair of Seita and Setsuko as they’re forced to survive in Kobe, Japan after American firebombing has demolished their homes and made food scarce. The film chronicles their struggles with finding a suitable substitute for their home, having to cope with the deaths of both their parents, scrounging and bartering for food, and the hunger that comes as a result of failing to acquire any.
A film this brutal in its emotions arguably wouldn’t work in a live-action format. I’ve heard from many critics, including Ebert’s take, that had the film been the exact same movie but in live-action, it would’ve been unbearable to watch. What each of the characters have to go through, some of the horrifying images on display (for example, the burn wounds on the mother before her death); the sheer realism of it all would’ve been sadistic in live-action, possibly even unwatchable. It’s in this that Grave of the Fireflies showcases its true power in terms of displaying the power animation can have over stories like this. Even the most grotesque images in the film are offset by the beauty of the animation. You want to weep, you want to stop watching the film, but you can’t help but discover a sublimity in the despair.
The animation acts not only as the lens Takahata deliberately chooses to give us, but also the lens of its characters. In an animated form, this story becomes not just a story about children, but a story from a child’s point of view. It’s a story laced with innocence and optimism in the face of pure misery, and the best way I can describe that feeling is in how, like most of Miyazaki’s work, it emphasizes the small moments just as much as the larger ones. To quote critic Ernest Rister, “There’s a moment where the boy Seita traps an air bubble with a wash rag, submerges it, and then releases it into his sister Setsuko’s delighted face–and that’s when I knew I was watching something special.”
At first, it’s hard to see why Studio Ghibli would release this as a double feature alongside My Neighbor Totoro outside of the shared concept that both films attempted to use animation in an original manner, and even that idea exists outside of the films themselves. Upon watching both films back to back, however, an interesting thematic connection unfolds between the two. Both deal with child protagonists who retreat to their imaginations to better cope with the harshness of their world.
In Totoro, Satsuki and Mei were playing with the forest spirits (whose immortal beings represented mortality), and thus were able to cling onto their innocence in spite of their gloomy circumstances (an ailing mother who might not make it). In Grave of the Fireflies, Seita and Setsuko only have each other to look after, and desperately cling to their innocence and keep their optimism because the war-torn environment is slowly leeching it away, until both are no more. Similar central themes, but the outcomes couldn’t be anymore different.
Speaking of different outcomes, Grave of the Fireflies is actually based on a semi-autobiographical novel of the same name that was written by Akiyuki Nosaka, and it’s actually a very well-known story in Japan. Both his novel and the film feature a key difference from the original story: in both versions, Seita–Nosaka’s stand-in–dies along with the sister, and that’s meant to be Nosaka’s form of reconciliation, as if he should’ve died along with her, and he could at least do that in his work of semi-fiction.
Of course, that wasn’t the case in the actual story, where Nosaka lived to tell the tale, and constantly feels guilty and responsible for the death of his sister. Nosaka himself called it a “double-suicide story” and a personal apology to his sister for the actions he made that led to her hunger. It’s easy to see why he’d feel so guilty that he’d wish to punish himself. But what does it represent on a cultural level?
This is, of course, an anti-war film, and it unflinchingly details war’s consequences over the fighting that transpires within it. However, the film never really assigns blame to any one side, be it the Americans who firebombed numerous Japanese villages and nuked entire cities, or the Japanese government for siding with the Axis Powers and bombing Pearl Harbor. If anything, the one concrete force that is shown in the most negative light is Seita, whose hubris and inability to accept a good situation (i.e. running away from their aunt who had food and shelter to instead live off on their own) serves as the catalyst for both his demise and Setsuko’s. And he is ultimately punished in the end, not primarily by the world or the nature surrounding him (though it’s certainly a factor), but by himself. After all, the real version of this character, Nosaka, invented his own death in his semi-autobiographical work.
The story is told from his perspective (it opens with his narration, even if it consists of a single line of dialogue), and there’s a mournful, elegiac quality to the entire film, as if Seita is in a constant state of regret. Seeing the film a second time, that regret is much more palpable, knowing the circumstances leading to their deaths, and it’s all the sadder when you learn of the real life Nosaka’s own regret and his wish to have this story act as a plea for his “sins” to be forgiven.
Really, what the film ultimately comes down to is not so much an anti-war story, but more of an anti-cruelty parable. It doesn’t pick sides because, really, none of this would’ve happened to these children had there not been any war or had there been less cruelty or had someone simply lent them a rice ball or two. And as cruel as this world can often times be, the moments of purity and innocence are what last forever.
Though both Setsuko and Seita die along with millions of Japanese civilians, their spirits live on, carrying only the innocence and optimism of the past rather than the hardships and sorrow that brought them to that point. Like all Studio Ghibli films, innocence is a contradiction: precious and fragile, yet also eternal in its own way. Grave of the Fireflies‘ message never amounts to condemning the horrors of war, but it does cry out for a world that strives for the one thing that will outlast human cruelty.
Grave of the Fireflies, like its double-feature companion My Neighbor Totoro, was modestly successful at the box-office and a major hit with critics worldwide. Ebert would later add it to his Great Movies collection, and the film has been featured in numerous lists regarding the greatest animated films as well as the best anti-war dramas. Since then, two live action adaptations have been made of Nosaka’s material, but none have matched the beauty of the animated version. The film also put Isao Takahata on the map, turning him into just as much a star-player as Miyazaki, at the time (though today he’s sadly somewhat underappreciated compared to his co-founding partner).
Afterwards, both men went to work on their follow-ups. Takahata’s later film, Only Yesterday, continued his tradition of more realism-focused work, while Miyazaki continued his tradition of magical whimsy and lighthearted thrills. And the result, which is the subject of the next upcoming Retrospective piece, is my favorite film from Miyazaki and the entirety of Studio Ghibli’s filmography. Really. Next time, we talk Kiki’s Delivery Service, and more of my weird childhood.
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