The Indigo Canon: ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ and the real cost of war


“Why do fireflies have to die so soon?”

Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies (1988) is Studio Ghibli’s saddest film. It’s also its best, and the only great Ghibli film without Hayao Miyazaki’s name in the credits.

What makes it so is its directness. Like practically all Ghibli films, pacificism is at its heart; the essential message pleading for us to recognise how much beauty is in the world and how war destroys it. This is certainly what Miyazaki has always communicated – with seemingly all his films having, at the very least, a shadow of war hanging in the background threatening to unleash its destruction. But the reason Miyazaki’s films are so joyful is because they are celebrations of biophilia. How a beautiful world translates to a beautiful human spirit, and how a beautiful humanity – it’s the one thing powerful enough to end war and destroy evil. This sentiment is perhaps why Miyazaki films are often viewed as ‘children’s movies’. Not that he dumbs his films down (far from it), and whilst he does capture the ecstasy of childhood wonder, his films are more than that. That is, they preserve it. He creates worlds in which childhood imagination is liberated, able to roam free. It exists, it’s alive, it will never die. It will always be Good. It will always defeat Evil. His films are joyful because they exude this hope – a hope we so desperately want to believe. In Grave of the Fireflies (1988), we lose that hope.

Takhata is more than aware how a contemporary audience has, by this point, become desensitised to violence

Set in the twilight of Second World War Japan, the film follows brother and sister Seita and Setsuko. Two children who are orphaned and made homeless following the death of their mother and the destruction of their town, Kobe, during a US firebomb attack. Their father, a lieutenant in the Japanese navy, is also dead. At least this is what is hinted at, in spite of Seita’s insistence that he is alive and will come and rescue them. He never does. Presumably he was killed in one of the battles during the Pacific Theatre – although we never see this. Indeed, apart from the opening, we never really see the war at all. Because this is not what Takhata wants to show us.

Released in 1988, Takhata is more than aware how a contemporary audience has, by this point, become desensitised to violence. In particular to anti-war films, violence – so often the main attraction of the genre – makes war a spectacle. ‘A Blockbuster thrill’ so-to-speak. If war is so evil than why does it look so good on-screen? Takahata takes away the spectacle, leaving us with Seita and Setsuko. An older brother and a younger sister trying desperately to keep each other alive.

It is as if Takahata is seeking to build boundaries in order to stop the horror of the world from getting in

The great critic Roger Ebert once called the film “an emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation”. More than just a stylistic choice, animation is used in Grave of the Fireflies (1988) to give Seita and Setsuko’s final moments dignity. At the beginning of the film, Seita dies alone in a subway station, ignored by indifferent passersby. We see his spirit leave him. The animation therefore gives the effect that it is Seita’s childhood spirit, now forever a child, telling his and Setsuko’s story, encasing them within this beauty indicative of childhood splendour, painfully holding on to what’s already been lost.

Indeed, it is as if Takahata is seeking to build boundaries in order to stop the horror of the world from getting in. This becomes symbolic when Seita and Setsuko take shelter in a shallow cave, releasing the fireflies they’ve been collecting into the air. Dark becomes light; their small world is filled in totality with something inexpressibly mesmeric. It is in these precious moments we almost forget there’s a war. And just for a moment, we almost forget their fate. We can imagine what Seita and Setsuko could be, not what they are destined to become. And then we remember. We want so desperately to protect these two helpless and innocent children, but we can’t. The pain becomes grief.

There is always a risk with ‘sad’ films that this reception diminishes their overall power. Yes, this film will draw you to tears, but afterwards it should exact a realisation that stories like this happened and never stop happening. That Seita and Setsuko are the quiet victims of war – forgotten after-thoughts and collateral damage of the war machine. They are not soldiers, nor did they ever offend their enemy. But war doesn’t care. The film demands one thing from us: we must.

Image credit: Angelii-D via DeviantArt

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