It is hard to sympathise with Japan post WWII.
When one opens their history textbook or listens to some ancestral viewpoints on the ‘grave’ mistakes of Japan, there is only horror and truly nothing victorious. But that is because we are looking at the country as an entity where every single Japanese falls under this umbrella of ruthless atrocity, where in fact beneath the killing spree, exist family units who are senselessly patriotic, but also condemned for the very reason of that. The ‘grave’ of these fireflies is worth telling, even if it portrays a refreshing and not-so-righteous angle on Japan.
Grave of the Fireflies opens with death.
No one is ever ready to face death, whether in reality or beyond. The immediate sorrow grips you anyhow; and director Isao Takahata made his viewers flinch at the most demeaning way of demise right from the start, where his young protagonist Seita is surrounded by a swarm of indifference and flies, both nocturne of death.
In a few quick scenes, we see the downfall of Seita and how he was reborn in the midst of fireflies (a contrast to the flies). We revisit his past with Setsuko, his sister, with this tightness in our heart that will only get worse as the film goes on.
Teenager Seita, and Setsuko who looks about five, live in Kobe with their mother while their father serves in the navy for World War II. Their world (and innocence) gradually vanishes just as we are pulled into it – first with the bomb which killed their mother and robbed them of a shelter, then with a hard-nosed distant aunt who either brags about taking in orphans like them or wields opinionated remarks like a samurai sword.
Eventually the two children are forced to live in a dilapidated bomb shelter by themselves. Seita takes on the role of a parent, and attempts to protect Setsuko from the war’s trepidation and harshness of reality, even if it means to sacrifice his own virtuousness in the process.
On the surface it might seem like a simple tale of survival, yet this remains one of the most poignant war films of all times, with acclaims even from the great movie critic Roger Ebert, calling it “an emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation”.
There are many driving forces to this compelling statement, some of them closely linked to the genre of anime, starting first with its elegiac mode. Elegiac may be taken to mean a sense of nostalgic melancholy for the lost, or as the Japanese most eloquently expressed with “mono no aware” (a sensitivity to ephemera). This strong concept of vanishing is unmissable in Grave of the Fireflies, and there is no greater pain (for me at least) than watching the innocence escape the eyes of a child, Seita and Setsuko in this case. It just makes me wonder if children are truly oblivious to all the malice and violence of war or are they in fact the most susceptible victims because they are really just empty vessels waiting to be filled up.
In anime, such feeling of transience epitomises in the form of nature, like a change in season. Symbols like cherry blossoms and water imagery also contribute to the poetic nature of an elegiac mode. Hence the most lyrical sequence in this film has to be when Seita, Setsuko and their parents were taking their family portrait underneath the cherry blossom trees, which now belongs to a part of reminiscence and nothing more.
Takahata’s works deviate from the usual palette of Studio Ghibli, which is led by timeless auteur Hayao Miyazaki. Ghibli’s films usually revolve around a fantastical realm from the valley of the wind (also produced by Takahata) to the more literal castle in the sky. But as seen from Takahata’s oeuvres, taking Only Yesterday (1991) for instance, he indulges the audience in a celebration of a disappearing past, youth and most notably, innocence, the ephemerality of it all. Fireflies, particularly known for their short life-spans parallel the lives of these two children, paving the film’s profundity within a deep burrow of sadness even before the end eventually arrives.
Nonetheless it is this briefness, this “mono no aware” that heightens our appreciation of beauty and momentary bliss. The closing montage of Setsuko’s lifetime just after she died therefore brings tears to our eyes, a mechanism heavily adopted in anime films and also very characteristic of Takahata’s works like Pom Poko (1994) and Only Yesterday.
Italian neorealism also plays a part in Takahata’s films, and we see this from the amount of awareness he paid to scenes which do not revel in any palpable significance. For instance, he shows the whole process of Setsuko taking off her clothes before she wades into the seawater. It might seem redundant at first glance, but when a later scene reveals the obtrusive rashes that rampages her back, this echo displayed a greater effect of a set up and pay off. Since Grave of the Fireflies is based on the semi-biographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, the film has to stay rooted to reality, regardless of its inventive genre.
The artistic merits of the film, as with all Ghibli productions, are distinguishably picturesque and very depictive of their settings. Even images of the shelling, rendering the city in flames and ruins, are drawn with such attention to detail that no single frame is repeated. But while Miyazaki’s films contain visions of hope and rebirth, Grave of the Fireflies in contrast embraces an apocalyptic nature like Hideaki’s Evangelion (1997), though not quite as impactful as Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen (1983). So unlike most Ghibli’s works, or even animations in general, Grave of the Fireflies de-assures rather than reassures.
Japanese animation excels in the representation of children, where their most precious yet intangible traits such as purity, guilelessness, idealism and an indestructible heedless courage are perfected with a look of determination on a puny mug like Setsuko’s.
It is not a hyperbole to claim her mannerisms are captured in the exactness of a living kid. Say for example Setsuko’s scrunched-up face just moments before her tears start to pour, or even her pouting lips and wide defensive eyes when she is throwing a tantrum. These are not expressions that could be easily spotted on real-life child actors; but due to the illustrative nature of Grave of the Fireflies, Takahata is able to maneuver every aspect of an image, thereby creating living characters out of a two dimensional canvas.
To a certain extent, the film also adheres to a very debatable concept of irrational patriotism and war-tied morality. The minimalist portrayal of these underlying messages actually carried the points further than intended, because Takahata knows that conscious effort from viewers are required too if a deep-rooted hypothesis is to be formed.
There is no one single villain to fight in this film, which tends to be frustrating, because at some point of the movie, it just does not feel right to have no one to blame for the heartrending plight of these children. You cannot really blame the B-29 Superfortress once you remember what had happened at Pearl Harbour, and neither can you fault the spiteful aunt for prioritising the well-being of her family during the mayhem. But that’s what it is in most reality – the true monster taking the form of the claws of fate.
The hauntingly emotional journey accompanied by a silent contemplation after viewing Grave of the Fireflies, usually diminishes my desire to revisit it again and again, despite it being one of my favourite films. But this elongated emotional gravity is, I believe, the ultimate reason to its enduring ingenuity.