Grave of the Fireflies is an animated film from Studio Ghibli, the same studio that’s produced Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away. The film is about WWII and focuses on the story of two siblings as their town and country of Japan is being bombed during the war. The older brother, Seita, becomes the sole guardian of his younger sister Setsuko after his mother dies from burns inflicted by a bombing raid whilst his father is off fighting in the Japanese Navy. We follow him and his sister as they try to survive a tyrannical aunt, and later, life on the streets during wartime.
It’s a tale which focuses on bare survival: their battle against the elements, the increasingly desperate lack of food as wartime rations become more stingy, as well as the overwhelming indifference and lack of charity seen by the adults in this film. Despite these hardships, the relationship between Seita and Setsuko never falters. It is this relationship that we as viewers become deeply emotionally invested in, and watching how the two interact is incredibly heart-warming. Scenes where Seita takes Setsuko to the beach and they remember their family holidays add a touch of life and colour to the otherwise red and brown desolate landscape of what were once thriving towns. There is a gorgeous and emotional scene where Seita catches a bunch of fireflies for Setsuko and use it to light up the damp cave they settle in. Even a small treat like a tin of fruit candies brings intense joy for little Setsuko. These moments are sensitively handled, emotionally wrought but imbue a sense of wonderment and magic into the film too. Unlike other Studio Ghibli films, there’s no magic here to save the day; all there is miserable reality, but the magic is in its striking scenes of genuinely human moments.
The situation only gets worse and worse. Seita’s relatives are demeaning and steal from his family inheritance. Seita runs out of money and has to resort to less honest methods to acquire the food he and his sister so desperately need. Seitsuko gets weaker from malnutrition and the doctor does nothing. The stark reality of war is shamelessly depicted here; no punches are held, it is all viscerally presented, and the effect of war is shown without a single scene of the front lines. This is all about the effect on the home front and the story of Seita and Setsuko is just a snapshot of the kind of personal tragedies which are echoed around the world.
But in contrast to the anti-war theme, I think what this film also shows is simply the indifference of society to those in need and those who are suffering. Seita and Setsuko could be homeless orphans in today’s peacetime, but still suffer the same tragedy that befalls them in the film. It is notable that not a single adult in the film, despite many appearing to have good intentions, actually does a thing to help these poor children. Many of them are portrayed as downright selfish, and only concerned with their own plights. There’s somewhat of a mythos around wartime stories, this idea that communities came together and braved the war together, but I think this film helps to demonstrate some fundamentals about human nature – fundamentals that we might not necessarily like.
As an animated film, the often simple but incredibly powerful images of war torn Japan help to showcase the tragedy of war in a way which haunts the imagination. Most people have grown up seeing images of the world wars in their history textbooks, but to see it animated and given an artistic twist brings out far more emotion than a blurry black and white photo. The film’s palette is mostly brownish reddish hues, but somehow that brown is much more evocative than just pitch black; it manages to convey true depression and darkness, whilst not resorting to simply having a dark palette. As such, the film is a real technicolor accomplishment, as its brownish red palette is supplemented by the gorgeous blues of the river and sea and the bright yellow of fireflies. Artistically, the film is much older than recent beauties like Howl’s Moving Castle; but animated films age extremely well and this is no different.
It is also all cinematically presented in a thoughtful way; often shots are held for long times, with little music or just simple dialogue, allowing us time to dwell and reflect on what we are seeing. What I think this film demonstrates is how the medium of animation can showcase and highlight features in a way which no other medium can. Akiyuki Nosaka, the author of the semi-autobiographical novel the film is based on, vowed that no live action movie could replicate the desolation of wartime Japan and no child actors could skilfully depict the range of emotions he and his younger sister experienced. But when presented with the idea of an animated movie, he was convinced that this was the only medium which could fully represent the fundamental nature of his story.
So much life is given to the animation of its two protagonists; the four year old toddler Setsuko in particular is given so much emotion and so much depth for such a young character. With very little dialogue, Setsuko manages to cut through to the heart of everything the audience is feeling. We feel her joy when she eats her fruit candies; we feel her pain when she realises her mother is dead; we feel her determination when she tries to help Seita catch fish. She is one of the most likeable characters in film and she does it without having to be a super bubbly and cute child; she simply lives, and she feels, and she understands, and that’s something which we often think young children are incapable of but this film proves otherwise. It would be impossible to watch this film and not feel intensely bonded to Setsuko, and the way Seita sacrifices everything for his younger sister is heart wrenchingly realistic.
I said at the start that this film makes me cry and that’s depressing. But so what, there’s a lot of films which are very sad and upsetting. However, not many films actively make you feel grief. After the film, I feel like the whole thing is an intense cathartic experience. The range of emotions it takes you through will leave you devastated at the end of it. Not many films can evoke such powerful, soul-penetrating emotions, and for that reason, it’s my favourite.