I’ll be honest: the thought of returning to Grave of the Fireflies caused me enough anxiety as to make me nauseous. And don’t get me wrong, it’s not because the movie is bad. Instead the reason I had only seen this movie once prior to this review is because it is easily amongst the most emotionally devastating movies I have ever seen. When I watched it the first time I spent a good couple of hours in deep silence simply because I was struggling to process the immense sadness of what I had just seen. Under most circumstances I would have declared this a movie I’d watch only once in my lifetime. But then for some stupid blog-related reason (of which I solely all of the editorial decisions) I decided to run through the Studio Ghibli catalogue and write about it. And so last week I had to brace myself to seeing this tragedy again. And let the record show that once again I am left emotionally wrecked.
Let’s get the obvious SPOILER out of the way: This is not a hopeful movie. It centers on Seita, a teenage boy, and his sister Setsuko, who I would guess is less than 5, who are trying to survive in Japan in the twilight months of World War II after both of their parents die. And, to put it bluntly, though they sure do try their hardest none of them survive. And seeing that story unfold (in my case, seeing it unfold again) is as devastating as it sounds.
Isao Takahata grants us a small grace in that we can intuit Seita and Setsuko’s fate from the movie’s opening. The first shot shows Seita dead from starvation in a train station with no sister nearby and with that all false expectations of hope are safely extinguished. From this prologue we land in Kobe in the dying months of the war where Seita and Setsuko try to survive the latest barrage of bombs being dropped on the city; their mother is not so fortunate as she burns to death in front of Seita’s eyes. With their father away in the Japanese army and presumed dead, it falls then on Seita to try and protect Setsuko and keep both of them alive.
Perhaps no movie in the Studio Ghibli catalogue shows just how important the studio’s existence is better that Grave of the Fireflies. It is hard to imagine a conventional studio green-lighting a movie this bleak and complicated, let alone an animated movie about the effects of war. While Hayao Miyazaki’s movies represents the public face of the company with calling cards like My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away entering the public consciousness, I think it is Isao Takahata’s filmography that represents the freedom this studio afforded its artists. His filmography ranges wildly in terms of themes (he follows this movie with the sedate homecoming drama Only Yesterday) and art-styles (his final work The Tale of Princess Kaguya is basically a feature length animated waterpainting); it even allowed him to take a leisurely decade or so between projects. So perhaps it is no surprise that a studio who allowed Takahata such freedom would let him craft his harrowing war film that is at some level aimed at the kids in the audience.
It is precisely the fact that this is a children’s movie that makes Grave of the Fireflies so devastating. In grand Studio Ghibli tradition, Seita and Setsuko are remarkably accurate depictions of children, which in turn makes it naturally easy for other children to identify with. Seita is protective of his baby sister and possesses the self-confidence of a young boy who does not yet grasp his own mortality, qualities that will both his strength and downfall; Setsuko meanwhile is simply an innocent child. Neither one of them is incapable of fully processing the war’s horrors and yet they are forced to experience it nonetheless. Whether it is in evading bombs falling down from the sky, witnessing burnt bodies on the ground, or even trying to find food to survive, it is impossible not to feel the weight of their enormous personal tragedy; nobody should experience these horrors, but especially not children.
But the haunting power of this movie is not that it continues to pound us with tragedy, it is that it also provides us with life-affirming moments of grace. The love that Seita and Setsuko have are tangible and authentic, all of their interactions are remarkably human. Whether it is a brother helping his sister get some candy out of a box or a little sister being awed by some fireflies had trapped for her, these human moments provide us brief moments of levity amidst their bleak situation. But ultimately they also serve as gut punches when the cruelty of the war catches up to them.
It would be incredibly easy for a movie of this enormous gravity to paint some easy villains in order to give the audience an easy release valve for their righteous anger. But Takahata refuses and instead apportions the blame to many parties, including in some sense us. As a Japanese movie, it could have made the Americans bombing the innocent villagers the evil ones, yet they remain a faceless evil at best and Takahata seems equally critical of the Japanese soldiers who blindingly swear fidelity to the emperor while cities and its citizens burn When the sojourning Seita and Setsuko leave the confines of their emotionally abusive aunt, it could be tempting to cast her the villain especially given where Seita and Setsuko inevitably end up but with dwindling resources and the panic of the end of the war, her predicament is at least understandable. Even Seita himself is not spared blame as his selfishness and stubbornness create as many problems as they solve; one cannot help but wonder if they would have survived had he swallowed his pride. Only Setsuko remains heartbreakingly innocent and it is no surprise that she cannot survive this world. Grave of the Fireflies is nothing short of a condemnation of the dehumanizing effects of war and the immorality of the ones who would glory in it. It is also a reminder that human cruelty and selfishness knows no political and national allegiance.
The movie is without a doubt one of the most tragic ever put onscreen and it well deserves its reputation as a movie you only see once (or if you are an idiot like me, you self-flagellate your heart in order to watch it again for a review you chose to put on your writing schedule). This is a shame because it is also in its own bleak way an absolutely beautifully crafted film. After two fantastical films in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Castle in the Sky, this represents the first Studio Ghibli movie to be set in the real world. It is to the animator’s credit that they depict the world with such accuracy that frequently I had to remind myself I was watching an animated film. Takahata allows scenes to breathe at a meditative pace, filling whole scenes with near silence as we get to observe the minute but meaningful moments these two siblings share. Like the fireflies that surround this film, he invites us to witness Seita and Setsuko’s struggle and to know firsthand the fragility of life. By the time we reach the movie’s close we have become so entwined with Seita and Setsuko that their final tragic end carries with it the emotional wallop their lives deserve. Witnessing their end is not an easy task for us as viewers, but it is a necessary one.
(And now I can return to never seeing this movie again)