2015 is the 30th anniversary of the founding of Studio Ghibli and, according to Hayao Miyazaki, it may also be one of its final years as a studio. Because this is one of my favorite films studios and Miyazaki is one of my favorite artists, who’s made some of my favorite films, I’ve decided to go through the history of Studio Ghibli one film at a time.
For the next twenty weeks, I’ll be discussing a different Studio Ghibli film, starting with Laputa: Castle in the Sky, which is the first Studio Ghibli film.
This does, however, mean I won’t be discussing Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, which was made before the founding of the studio.
I’ll also only be discussing the Japanese audio version of the films, though that doesn’t mean the dubs are bad or not worth seeing. They’re just slightly different. I’ll also be discussing these with the assumption that they’ve been seen by you. So, yes, spoilers are below.
Grave of the Fireflies is considered by many to be not only the finest film to come out of Studio Ghibli, but one of the greatest animated films ever made. More than that, such critics as the late Robert Ebert listed it among his Great Films and went so far as to call it one of the greatest war films ever made.
Grave of the Fireflies is the second Studio Ghibli release and the first of Isao Takahata’s Ghibli films. Takahata and Miyazaki have a working relationship spanning fifty years and Miyazaki even began his career under the mentorship and guidance of Takahata. Takahata’s films have never reached the acclaim or popularity of Miyazaki in the west, but he is quite highly regarded in Japan, and for good reason. But I would imagine the reason he’s never really picked up here has a lot to do with the kind of films he makes.
In the west, we long ago gave up on the idea that animation was for everyone. Or, to put that better, we believe animation is meant for children, which can also be enjoyable for adults. Think Disney and Pixar, or how South Park caused so much controversy due to it seeming to be for children, when, in reality, it never had any intention of being for children. We think animation belongs to simpler brains, to simpler times in our lives. Miyazaki has reached great popularity and acclaim because his films, in general, fall into that realm.
But Takahata’s films aren’t that way. Or at least the Takahata films I’ve seen, and, I admit, I’ve only seen two so far, and this was only my second viewing of Grave of the Fireflies. I’ve never felt attached to his films the way I have to Miyazaki’s, but I’m very interested in discovering what kind of filmmaker he truly is, which is another reason for doing this series of essays and reviews.
But Grave of the Fireflies is most certainly not for children. It’s one of the most difficult films for me to watch, and not because it’s overly violent or sexual. It has no disturbing images like other films that I’d describe hard to watch, like Requiem for a Dream or Irreversible. But Grave of the Fireflies is haunting and brutal. It’s devastation. It sweeps in and firebombs your heart.
The story Takahata tells is simple here and he puts it in simple and realistic visuals. It’s based on the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by Nosaka Akiyuki, which tells the story of a brother and sister during and after the 1945 firebombing of Kobe.
The film opens with Seita, the brother, telling us the date of his Death: September 21st, 1945. He sits in a crowd, ignored, begging for food until the trash collectors discover that he’s dead, along with several others. Even his corpse finds no kindness among the living and his body and belongings are discarded like any other trash. A tin meant for candies is discovered and the trash collector tosses it aside and the camera follows it. It has popped open and what appear to be bones are spilling out.
From here we rewind to where the story begins. The bombing sirens go off and Seita, his younger sister, Setsuko, and his mother scramble to collect their things and head to the shelter for safety. Their mother, who has a heart condition, goes ahead of the children. Soon after, the bombs drop, but they’re not the ones expected. They’re incendiary bombs that lay waste to the entire village.
None of them make it to the shelter but Seita and Setsuko make it out okay. The community comes together to find one another. There, a woman tells Seita that he needs to go to the makeshift clinic to see his mother. She watches Setsuko as Seita races away only to find his mother badly burned with bandages covering her entire body. She’s unresponsive. A powerful and horrifying sight for a child to see, but he kneels beside her, waiting.
It’s clear that the doctors have little time for anything. Injuries are piling and they’re not even at a real hospital. There’s little to do for most and little time to give any one patient.
Soon after she dies, a fact Seita hides from Setsuko. This leads to one of the most powerful moments in the film for me. Seita is overcome with emotion after watching his mother’s body, covered in maggots and bandages, carried to be incinerated. He returns to Setsuko and makes up a story about how their mother will be with them soon. Rather than cry or fall apart, he tells Setsuko to watch as he begins to do gymnastics on a bar. He does the same move over and over again and Setsuko never turns to watch him.
It’s these little moments that elevate this film, I think, beyond just an ordinary war film or even most other animated films. It’s so powerfully human and captures so perfectly how humans are. We are not rational beings. We are not guided by logic or reason. We’re pushed and pulled by our emotions and temporary flashes of insight. Seita does the one thing he can to not cry or tell Setsuko what they’ve truly lost.
I think it’s the repetitive nature of his action that gets me. He’s just spinning there on the gymnastics bar. He’s doing it for himself but also Setsuko, his very young sister. But Setsuko never even turns to watch him. It’s a shocking moment. It’s beautiful and disturbing.
It illustrates the kind of film we’re dealing with here.
Now homeless and without family, Seita decides they must go live with their distant aunt who quickly convinces Seita to sell his mother’s kimonos for food while Setsuko wails about how the kimonos belong to her mother. Their time at their aunt’s is contentious and difficult. Seita writes letters to his father, a naval officer, but never receives a reply. Their aunt guilts them constantly. She wants Seita to join the war effort or go to school. She wants Setsuko to stop crying at night. While living with their aunt, Seita goes to recover things from their old home that he buried in the ground. He gives it all to his aunt, except a tin full of fruit drops, which he often gives to Setsuko when she’s upset. As the war goes on and the food supply comes short, their aunt becomes increasingly resentful of their presence.
While the aunt isn’t really portrayed in the kindest light, I think context is needed. The Japanese, during WWII, were in a hypernationalist movement. And, like many countries during WWII, everyone was meant to contribute to the war effort, regardless of age. Seita was old enough to work in a factory or farm or whatever else. In the eyes of his aunt, he was being selfish. He was hiding from the problems of the world. Losing parents or family members was no reason not to contribute. Everyone was losing someone every day. In addition, these children were basically strangers to her.
That doesn’t justify her actions, but I think it shows that she’s not an evil careless woman.
Eventually, Seita and Setsuko decide to leave their aunt’s home, which she has no problem with. She wishes them luck, perhaps not realising or understanding that they have nowhere to go.
And so they choose a shelter in the hills to live at. They have money from their mother to last them.
And they find fun here, living as they want, with no one to tell them what to do.
They fill their days with fun and games. They cook and clean together. Seita spends their mother’s money to buy food, an umbrella, a comb, even some more fruit drops. The collect fireflies at night to use as a light inside the shelter.
And another one of the most beautiful moments of the film arrives on their first night in the shelter. As they lay down to sleep, Seita rolls over and cuddles with Setsuko. The loneliness and hopelessness and all the loss fills his actions, and she pushes him away. She needs space to sleep. And so they sleep together, alone.
Seita discovers Setsuko digging a hole and filling it with insects. Setsuko is horrified to find that the fireflies have all died and so she makes them a grave.
She asks Seita why they had to die. She asks him why their mother had to die.
Setsuko tells him that their aunt told her before they left.
This moment, more than the moments of a thousand other tragedies is the one that sticks with me most. Burying the fireflies, the profound sadness felt at their passing, and how there is nothing to say. There’s never anything to say.
Death is Death.
Their fun in the shelter quickly fades as their food runs short and no one wants money anymore.
Setsuko becomes sick and they’re both losing weight, eaten by lice and fleas. Their situation grows grimmer and grimmer. No one will give them food, and Seita begins stealing it from local farmers during raids and at night. He’s caught eventually and the farmer beats him severely while Seita begs him for help, explaining that his sister is sick. Setsuko watches this happen and screams his name while the farmer beats him and then drags him to the police station, where he finally finds kindness. The policeman tells the farmer he could be charged with assault for beating a starving child.
Seita then takes Setsuko to a doctor who tells Seita what he and all of us know: she’s starving. There is no medicine to cure her. She simply needs food.
Seita is being brushed away, as if the cure is simple, and he demands loudly: Where do I get food?
No one has answers and they’re back at the shelter, starving.
It hurts everywhere. It hurts deep in our hearts. I remember weeping here the first time I watched this. There’s something so profoundly desolate about this moment. The dying asking the living if they need help.
She’s growing incredibly weak and delirious, barely clinging to life.
Desperate, Seita withdraws all his mother’s money from the bank and discovers that Japan has surrendered and that his father is probably dead. Finally he can buy food and he buys a great deal of it, then rushes back to Setsuko, who is hallucinating, sucking on a marble from the tin that once held the fruit drops.
While Seita cooks her food, she dies and never wakes.
Seita sleeps beside her corpse and we all die a little bit inside. We die along with Setsuko and Seita dies too. He sleeps beside her corpse while the rain takes the food he made and bought.
The next day he cremates her and gathers her ashes in the tin that once held fruit drops. The tin that is thrown aside at the beginning of the film by the trash collectors.
I’ve mostly summarised the events of the film rather than analysed them, because I find this a very difficult film to analyse. What is there to say, really?
It’s easy to blame all of this on Seita. He and his sister could have survived had he only given up his pride sooner. Had he only begged to live with his aunt once more.
But that’s not what happened.
And though these events are not from Takahata’s life, they do resemble what he went through during the end of WWII. He also spent time as a child begging for food while the bombs dropped overhead.
Perhaps unique about Takahata is the style he animates in. It doesn’t resemble what we think of as anime. He has a more realistic style, and is influenced deeply by the real world and western art, rather than other animators.
It makes his films feel very different from most animated films made in the west or east. He doesn’t focus on universal themes that are relatable to children and people across the world. He tells very personal stories often geared more towards adults, and Grave of the Fireflies is considered his masterpiece, and, really, one of the true masterpieces of animated cinema.
It’s heartbreaking and impossibly grim. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. The characters develop and grow, but they find no rewards for their personal journey. The world is an uncaring place and these children are rolled over and drown beneath it.
Grave of the Fireflies is not an easy film to watch and even just describing moments of it above nearly made me cry, the memories of them so clear in my head, so tightly wrapped round my heart and lungs. Watching this is like drowning. It’s like being buried alive.
But it’s a very important film, and I think it’s unsurprising that the two pillars of Studio Ghibli, who grew up during WWII, strongly oppose violence and militarism. Even still, as Japan becomes more and more right wing and desires a strong military. It’s also interesting that they’ve never made a film highlighting the worst atrocities of Imperial Japan, which lasted until 1947. There is a strong pacifistic tone and antiwar mentality in the many Ghibli films. Perhaps especially in the ones that contain the most violence, such as this and Princess Mononoke.
It’s an element that has helped shape my own views about the world.
Though I saw Grave of the Fireflies for the first time as an adult, it felt like it was already a part of my DNA.
This is the most brutal and bleak work Studio Ghibli has ever put out, but it’s also maybe one of the most important films they’ve produced. You should watch it, but go in carefully. Know that it will incinerate you, the way Japan was decimated.
Next week, we discuss My Neighbor Totoro.