Quest Status: 726 / 1000
TSPDT Rank #809
Grave of the Fireflies continues the thematic thread that has run through all of my selections for this month: the existence of painful memories in the recent past that must be faced and, hopefully, transcended. In Grave of the Fireflies, the film takes place after both of the main characters have died, looking back on the final days of their lives as Japanese children trying to get by without their parents in the final days of World War II. The memories of this era in Japan are irrevocably tinged with shame and anger, but these memories are becoming fainter as each year goes by. History classes in Japan today focus primarily on the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended the war, with little to no mention of Japan's role in the war and their reasons for fighting. The fact that the US won the war means that our education system is less hesitant to discuss it, but with the European side of the war taking precedence over the Pacific front, many Americans' knowledge of the war with Japan is also limited mostly to the atomic bombings.
Because of this, I assumed that Grave of the Fireflies would also touch upon these well-known tragedies. However, despite being set in Kobe, not far from Hiroshima, there isn't a single mention of the atomic bombing in the film. Instead, the film focuses on two siblings: Seita (voiced by Tsutomu Tatsumi), a ninth-grade boy, and Setsuko (voiced by Ayano Shiraishi), his preschool-age sister. After a firebombing destroys their house and fatally injures their mother, and with their father off fighting in the Japanese Navy, the two children are forced to fend for themselves in the unforgiving final months of the war. The constant ridiculing of their distant aunt leads them to set up house in a bomb shelter, but the scarcity of rations forces Seita to steal in order to feed his sister. It's a story of childhood lost: the failed attempts of children to take care of themselves when they are deprived of all parental and societal support.
As many other reviewers have noted, watching Grave of the Fireflies isn't going to lift anyone's spirits - despite its hauntingly beautiful final scene. It was produced by Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli, but the vision that writer/director Isao Takahata presents is much harsher and more realistic than the fantasy worlds that Ghibli is famous for. Its unflinching view of the cruelty of wartime life might seem uncharacteristic for an animated film, but it is more successful in capturing the look and feel of 1945 Japan than any live action film could likely have been. And while it doesn't make any blatant comments on the war itself, it is clear that Seita and Setsuko die from neglect - in a society where even children were expected to understand the dire circumstances that their country was in and find a way to contribute to the war effort. The most telling moment is when the childrens' aunt reprimands little Setsuko when she asks for some rice to eat, claiming that the two aren't worthy of proper food because they aren't fighting for the nation. This is the true price of war - the ruined lives of innocent children who have no one looking out for them and no real conception of the danger that surrounds them. Even so, Grave of the Fireflies also gives weight to the fleeting moments of joy that the two children share in their final days - like the fleeting light that the firefly gives off before giving way to an untimely demise.