Saturday Morning Cartoons: Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
“September 21st, 1945. That was the night I died.”
So begins the opening of Grave of the Fireflies, a Japanese animated film concerning a teenage boy, Seita, and his young sister, Setsuko, adjusting to the wartime atrocities that drive them away from there home. Their father is a captain in the Imperial Japanese Navy, so it’s up to Seita to be the man of the house, so to speak. These duties include caring for his younger sister and his mother, who suffers from a heart condition and often renders her weak. These characters seem quite familiar with air raid sirens, so when one goes off Seita sends his mother off to the bomb shelter so he and his sister can secure their house before they leave. Our siblings are surprised when the overhead bombers aren’t dropping what their name implies, but instead are releasing waves of incendiaries. The whirling sound they make as they fall catches Seita and Setsuko off guard, but when everything around them starts burning at a rapid pace they decide to make a run for it.
After the air raid Seita learn that his mother is horribly burned from head to toe, and when she inevitably passes away, he takes his sister along to his aunt’s house. Things seem to be alright for a while; they have a room and roof over their heads, food to eat, and, more importantly, time to cope with everything that has just happened. Not only have they just lost their mother and their home, but their childhood innocence is robbed of them as well. When Setsuko proclaims that she has lots of money in a purse hanging around her neck, a purse that she herself isn’t strong enough to open and relies on her brother to do so, you can’t help but smile at this tender brother-sister moment. This is probably the last time you’ll smile during this movie.
As days go by their aunt seemingly becomes more and more passive aggressive, and constantly looking down on them. “Answer me, child” is a line often heard from her, a line so infuriating and demeaning, yet Seita stomachs it all. He’s all his young sister has left, so no matter how down he may feel, he mut keep his spirits up for this child. He does his best to hide the atrocities of war from her, shielding her eyes when they stumble across a lifeless body by the beach. Their aunt is furious that they spend all their time doing nothing, while her husband and daughter spend everyday helping to fight the good fight. When she asks why don’t they go to work, Seita replies that he cant, that both have been burned down.
Seita decides that it’s for the best if they finally leave this unwelcoming house. They move to an abandoned bomb shelter along the shore where they live during the remainder of the film. Cashing in what savings their mother had supplies them with enough food and goods for a while, and they even populate their shelter with fireflies to light the night up. It’s not until the next morning when they wake up and find that all the fireflies are dead when Setsuko really starts to unravel as a person. She questions why they had to die. Why their mother died. Why can’t they go home? In a depressed state and with food running out, Setsuko starts to suffer from malnutrition, with the only remembrance of their previous life being an empty can of fruit drops. There is a point when Seita finds her laying in bed, and she has a few rocks coupled by her, offering them to him. She’s become so delusional that she thinks they are actual rice balls, and this is perhaps the saddest moment I’ve ever seen in an animated film. Setsuko, beset by hunger, passes away in her bed, ad Seita is left alone, to his own sealed fate.
There are films about war and there are film set during war, this caters to the later. Would it be considered an anti-war film? In my eyes I would say so, but director Isao Takahata disagrees. However, film is art, and art is subjective, so different people can come away with different emotions. Roger Ebert, however, praises the film and inaugurated it into his famous “Greatest Movies List.” This is an incredibly powerful, painful and devastating movie, adjectives you rarely hear someone use to describe a film from Studio Ghibli. It’s even rarer to find a film about the consequences of war on individuals living in a society. This is Japanese animation at its best.
Here’s Ebert himself on the film: