After the firebombing of Kobe in the last days of World War II, a young man and his little sister struggle to survive in the countryside, and find themselves at the mercy of not only hunger but the indifference of their fellow men.
This heartrending story, from the same studio (Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli) that created Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and many other cheery fantasies, easily numbers among the best animated features made in any language. It has at least as much to say about its subject—and in a consummately artful way—as any live-action war film.
- An unflinching story about the human cost of war.
- Beautiful and precisely observed animation.
- May be too grim for some audiences, but impossible to forget once seen.
- Director: Isao Takahata
- Released By: Shinchosha
- Distributed Domestically By: Sentai Filmworks
- Price: $19.98 (DVD)
- Age Rating: Unrated (disturbing images of war and suffering)
- Family Drama
- Barefoot Gen
No child should have to live through war, or die from it
Seita and Setsuko are children in one of the worst times and places to be a child: wartime. Seita is a young man, maybe in his early teens; Setsuko is perhaps two or three years old. Grave of the Fireflies is about how they live, and eventually die, in Japan during the last few days of WWII.
The story opens with Seita’s death in a subway station—apparently by starvation, as many others did during those last days of the war when food was scarce. His last thoughts are of his little sister, and from there we are led back several months to the firebombing of Kobe, when his family is forced to flee to one of many local shelters. We see Seita’s family burying provisions in the backyard to be unearthed later, and then watch as American planes rain down incendiary bombs on their house. Seita and Setsuko’s entire neighborhood is turned into a flaming labyrinth in a matter of minutes, and it’s made all the more horrifying by how matter-of-factly it’s presented.
They are spared, but their mother is severely burned and dies of her injuries not long after. That provokes the beginning of a long series of loving but unwise decisions on Seita’s part—although it’s hard to say any of us would do differently in his shoes. In a scene of remarkable human observation, Seita lies to Setsuko about their mother, insisting that she’s just injured and is recovering in a hospital somewhere outside of town. The way Setsuko fidgets and cries is masterfully depicted: anyone who has children knows this is how they behave when they know, somehow, that they are being lied to but can’t express it properly.
The business of survival
With no parents to care for them—their father is a naval officer, off fighting the war—the kids relocate to the house of an aunt in the countryside. She at first seems welcoming, but over time her prejudices become clear: these two are a drain on the household. They don’t work to support the war effort; they think of themselves and each other first. There’s no question Seita loves his sister—it’s just that his youth and brashness make it hard for him to do justice to her in the middle of such wretched circumstances. It’s also left to us, wisely, to decide whether he or his aunt is more correct in their view.
Feeling unwelcome, Seita leaves the household and brings Setsuko with him to live near a riverbank. With what little money they have they purchase provisions and settle in for a life of roughing-it. They don’t seem to do all that badly at first: they have enough to eat, and most importantly they have each other. What they do not have is anyone else, and the support they can provide. Even Setsuko is acutely aware of how they have been abandoned by the rest of the world, and how their lives may be no more enduring than those of the fireflies they capture that only live for one day.
Soon Seita realizes the odds are against them. Rice is rationed now, and even if he has money to buy it, the farmer selling it to him can only spare so much. The food they scrape together is meager, and Setsuko becomes malnourished and sickly. Seita is caught stealing sugar beets—and while the policeman who interrogates him is sympathetic, he can’t offer any real help. Neither can the doctor who sees Setsuko’s spreading rash and shakes his head. With the war in its last days, everyone is out for themselves, and the problems of two orphans barely register on anyone else’s senses.
Autobiography, observation, and penance
The sharply-observed details in the film make it seem autobiographical, and it is. Grave of the Fireflies is an adaptation of a 1967 novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, best known for having penned many stories for children about the effects of war. He survived World War II under conditions similar to what Seita endured, He lost his own little sister to hunger, and wrote the book as a form of atonement for her death. The film version was commissioned by the book’s own publisher, and while it did not do well it has since gone on to achieve classic status on both sides of the Pacific.
Director Isao Takahata (who also directed Ghibli’s Pom Poko) has gone on record to state the he doesn’t consider Fireflies to be an anti-war film per se, but rather a story about the way people fail to protect each other in times of need. Consequently, the movie says little about the politics of the war. It doesn’t assign blame to Japan for its role as an aggressor, or condemn the United States for its firebombing of civilian areas. (Not a single soldier on either side is shown, save for Seita’s own father in a photo.) It simply shows what happens to these two kids, neither one thinking about history or nations as much as they are worried about the people closest to them.
That said, the firebombing is depicted with merciless clarity, and to good end. While much noise has been made about the use of atomic weapons against Japan in World War II, the destruction and suffering caused by more conventional weapons incendiary bombs goes relatively unmentioned.