The Grave of the Fireflies places a pair of warm, gentle hands around your heart; these hands know which strings to pull and when—the emotional reaction this causes is as subtle as the movie.
The film, Made originally in 1988, dubbed in English in 1994 has been reviewed more than three dozen times. However it is a film that would inspire all but the most curmudgeonly person to have to put in her or his two cents.
Seita is the scion of a Japanese family whose patriarch is at sea during World War II. After his mother dies, he becomes the sole caretaker of his much younger sister Setsuko. After their home town is bombed into dust, they move in with a distant aunt who is stereotypically resentful of the children partly because, since Seita’s father is in the Navy, their rations would be larger. She is an unpleasant but not abusive person. Despite this, Seita and Setsuko create a home for themselves in the opening of a mine. Here they create an idyll in the midst of the falling of the Empire of Japan. Here they discover the fireflies that create the image and antithesis for the film. The children use the fireflies to light their beds under a mosquito net. After a very short while the fireflies die and Setsuko buries them lamenting their short lives. As will happen to idylls built on a foundation of a nation being bombed, it falls apart. I will not go into further details—I believe I could and the impact would be the same, but for the sake of emotional freshness, I will refrain.
The fireflies provide a child-like image of hope. For one thing, they are always the stuff of childhood. I look at them now and still get the urge to catch a few—we call them lightening bugs in my part of the country, but the desire is the same regardless of their moniker. They stand in stark contrast to the incendiary devices dropped by the plains, they are also a light in much the same way, but they fall bringing destruction and hopelessness. This war of images and the emotional impact are what make this movie so beautiful.
Brits can tell mysteries better than anyone else; it is just a cultural specialty. Japanese can do animation better than anyone else. For one thing, they don’t consider animation a childish pursuit. They have cartoons for kids, anime for teens, and movies like The Grave of the Fireflies, Spirited Away, and Steamboy for adults. The Japanese animators (and directors of live action also for that matter) understand the importance of stillness and silence. These elements allow for reflection—for an American audience, this might seem mean since the things you are to reflect on are not pleasant.
The synthesis between the fireflies and incendiary bombs is the pocket of time for a child to become an adult by the worst means possible. We must remember that children do not start wars. Wars are brought to children. No idea, no ideal, no natural resource like oil is worth looking into the eyes of a child and seeing the fear or worse, the hopelessness.
Times like the one we are living now and the one represented in this overwhelming movie make me want to believe desperately in Hell. Hell is for the people who start wars. Hell is for people who don’t protect and prepare children but harm or kill them. (I feel the same way about animals for the same reason.) Children do not ask to be brought into the world and have to rely heavily on others for a significant portion of their lives. Once they are born, there are guidelines for raising them to protect them from danger until they can learn, then begin to prepare them for the world so it isn’t a shock. There are children of many dead and injured American soldiers right now who have had a war brought home to them, an unnecessary war.
Let’s look at this for a moment from the perspective of those too young to do anything about it but old enough to know at least part of what is happening. Japan launched a war against China in 1931 and attacked the United States ten years later. America had to respond. However, the children are neither to blame nor should they have to pay a penalty for the sins of their fathers. Yet they do. The United States attacked Iraq in a war of desire, not need. Children in Iraq suffer not much differently than Seita and Setsuko.
This is what makes me a pacifist. I look into the eyes of a 3 year old or a 6 year old and see potential and something that is endless for them because they cannot imagine an end. The thought that someone else’s prejudice, hatred, political ideology, desire for natural resources could cause direct harm to children like this makes me want to vomit.
What makes The Grave of Fireflies the success that it is, is also what hurts the most. The idyll that Seita creates for him self and his sister—that he sacrifices for her—is a momentary respite from what you know is coming. The beginning tells you what is coming, but the idyll can make you forget what is going on around them. A society of two near a stream in an area surrounded by destruction cannot last. The proximity of the reality will invade it. So the moments of peace and joy that makes childhood childhood just set the viewer up for what she and he already knows is coming.
I recommend not watching it alone. I recommend not talking about it either. Let it sink in, then watch a comedy you like to help balance the mental palate. Fireflies isn’t hopeless and bleak, but you still may need a sweeter taste of something to balance the very bittersweet nature of this fantastic journey.
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A1988 animated film written and directed by Isao Takahata. This is the first film produced by Shinchosha, who hired Studio Ghibli to do the animation production work. It is an adaptation of the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by Akiyuki Nosaka, intended as a personal apology to the author's own sister.
Taking place toward the end of World War II in Japan, Grave of the Fireflies is the tale of the relationship between two orphaned children, Seita (清太) and his younger sister Setsuko (節子). The children lose their mother in the firebombing of Kobe, and their father in service to the Imperial Japanese Navy, and as a result are forced to try to survive amidst widespread famine and the callous indifference of their countrymen, some of whom are their own extended family members.
The movie begins in ...