The Studio Ghibli season at the BFI has highlighted the very best of Japanese animation. We can define the cuddly Totoro or fantastical world of Princess Mononoke as an example of what Studio Ghibli stands for – but Grave of the Fireflies proves otherwise.
In fact, Isao Takahata’s 1988 film(released alongside My Neighbour Totoro) is a sobering, heart-breaking tale of those final years in Japan at the end of World War II, told through the eyes of two children, Seita and Setsuko. Grave of the Fireflies may be one of the most impressive, and surely ground-breaking, animations from the studio and challenges Disney – and western animators – to make such mature, intelligent and brutal films for a young audience.
Based on a novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, it is semi-autobiographical as he himself survived the fire-bombings of Japan while his sister died of malnutrition. This truth is loud and clear as the story is open and frank about the horrors of war. Indeed, aimed at children, this will surely establish a sense of pacifism in the youngest of minds. “September 21, 1945… that was the night I died.” is the first line. Seita is dead. We hear this narration from beyond the grave, and merely seeing his starved corpse in the centre of Sannomiya Station is a shock unto itself. Does author Nosaka believe this should’ve been his fate? But his soul is reawakened and we flashback to the countless moments of injustice that he, and his sister Setsuko, are forced to bear to stay alive. Something, known from the outset, they fail to do.
The spectacular backdrop of nature and blue skies, and the neon glow of the fireflies, contrasts against the war time horrors. Bandaged bodies and ashen corpses litter the streets. Setsuko herself – a baby-faced four-year-old – has red-rash skin, diseased by malnutrition, whereby her rib-cage, even in animated form, evokes such sadness. We know Setsuko was not the only young child affected.
But Grave of the Fireflies rests on the shoulders of 14-year-old Seita. His downward spiral of sorrow begins as he desperately runs from the fire-bombs hitting his home-town, as Setsuko clings to his back. His only goal is to find his Father and look after his sister. Irrespective of the burnt towns and desperation on their faces, Seita and Setsuko try and laugh. They play on the beach and carry gem-like fruit-sweets in a tin. Setsuko’s laugh highlights her happiness and her innocence, but we know it won’t end well. Seita steals to stay alive and a cruel aunt abuses the limited rice they gain (accumulated by selling their deceased mothers kimono). These are desperate times and, too young (and rightfully scared) to support the nation, but too old to be pitied and helped by others. Seita is trapped in the grey area whereby adults can’t comfortably ignore his troubles.
Compared with films that tackle the destruction and decimation of war in the context of childhood, such as War Horse, it doesn’t do the film justice. Grave of the Fireflies stands tall alongside Schindler’s List considering the emotional honesty revealed in the death of two children; the lead roles. Roger Ebert notes the influence of Hiroshige and Hergé in the animation, detailing how it the narrative “mediates on the consequences” of action rather than exploiting it. Indeed, the patience and calmness is overpowering as we see the humanity in the story. Ebert goes so far as to state that Grave of the Fireflies “belongs on any list of the greatest war films ever made”, and I’d be inclined to agree. As part of the Studio Ghibli season, it is amongst the very best.
This post was written for Flickering Myth on April 16th 2014