I watched Grave of the Fireflies expecting a masterpiece. I’d never seen the film before, but its reputation preceded it – as Studio Ghibli’s second film (released simultaneously with the magnificent My Neighbour Totoro) and as a tear-jerking war drama. Based on the non-fiction novel by Nosaka Akiyuki, it tells the tale of teenage boy Seita and his infant sister, Setsuko, left homeless, hungry and struggling to survive in the wake of America’s firebombing of Japan. Most of what I’d heard about the film had led me to expect a heartfelt melodrama, a small-scale but intensely tragic chronicle of needless suffering (Roger Ebert described it as “an emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation”).
And yet, the film that I watched was not what I’d imagined. There’s a disconnect between Grave of the Fireflies’ reputation and its reality; one which I’m having difficulty getting my head around. A similar disconnect is found in the contrast between the film’s almost romantic depictions of suffering and its realist representation of the struggles of post-war life in Japan. Reading further on the film, I found myself equally intrigued by the difference between the film’s intent and its interpretation – which I’ll get to later. For now, this is a less a review than an attempt to reconcile these dichotomies and interrogate why Grave of the Fireflies didn’t connect with me as powerfully as anticipated.
The fatalism of the film is absolute; there are moments of levity here, but never hope. This is to be expected, given we open with the ominous line: “September 21, 1945. That was the night I died.” We watch Seita die in a crowded train station, passers-by sneering in disgust at his emaciated form. Despite this suffocating sombreness, Seita’s death is juxtaposed with his spirit’s reunion with his Setsuko amidst a field of luminescent fireflies. This sort of contrast is repeated throughout. A joyous visit to the beach is interrupted by the discovery of a decomposing corpse. The siblings’ efforts to obtain food through bartering and eventually theft is distinct from the playful bond between the pair. There is perhaps no better metaphor for this approach than that provided by the film itself, when Setsuko digs a grave for the masses of fireflies that died within their tent overnight: festive spots of light now reduced to a mound of death.
Undoubtedly this is intentional on the part of director Isao Takahata. This dichotomy is deep in the bones of the film; even down to the simple fact that it’s animated. The animation provides a melancholy, picture-book sheen that suits this romantic notion of death while, equally, allowing for historically accurate representations of the devastated landscape of the time (which would be largely impossible or, at least, prohibitively expensive in live action). And I don’t mean to criticise art for refusing to be one thing; it would be critically short-sighted for me to complain simply because Grave of the Fireflies is more than an unambiguous weepy. Yet … it doesn’t resonate for me. I can recognise the craft and the cultural significance of the film (both for maturing the animation medium and for telling an important story for post-war Japan), but it doesn’t leave an enduring emotional impact.
Examining Takahata’s intent in producing the film provides some clarity (though I must clarify that finding reliable sources here is tricky, so some of what follows may be hearsay/inaccurate). Akiyuki’s original book is in large part an expression of guilt; unlike the protagonist of Grave of the Fireflies, Akiyuki lived through the war. However, his sister did not, and Akiyuki blames himself for her death, caused in part by his reluctance to share food with her. Takahata then intended to reflect that in his film, which is less an anti-war statement than an argument for youngsters to respect the ordeal their elders experienced in the war and its aftermath.
Seita’s inability to tolerate his judgmental aunt – who takes the children in after their mother’s death – drives him to escape her household and take shelter in the wilderness which eventually and inevitably leads to starvation and desperation. From a Western perspective it’s hard to imagine that we’re expected to judge these children harshly for this decision, rather than their older relative who gripes at having two extra mouths to feed. Perhaps this is simply a cultural disconnect – the notion of welfare and helping those in need is so deeply embedded in Australian culture (with obvious exceptions: see our current refugee policies) that it is essentially impossible to sympathise with the aunt’s grievances over what amounts to a minor inconvenience.
In any case, if we’re expected to see the fate of Seita (and his sister) as a direct result of their actions, why the angelic depiction? I can imagine a compelling film where the drive for human survival overtakes one’s commitment to one’s sister, but this isn’t that film (whatever the intent). Seita consistently dotes on his sister, treating her love and sharing their meagre resources evenly (even when he is forced to steal for food). For me, Grave of the Fireflies plays neither as the intended portrait of youngsters damning themselves through disrespect nor the predominant Western interpretation of the film as a desperately sad anti-war treatise.
Ultimately, this is where I stand – respectful of the film’s craft and care but unable to resolve these disparate perspectives. I don’t begrudge those for whom the story resonates, nor do I intend to dismiss the film as an inferior artwork. But what I watched simply is not the masterpiece I had been led to expect.