My Thoughts on Grave of the Fireflies- A Japanese Animated Film

Why do fireflies die so soon?

– Setsuko

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It’s been about nine months since I last watched a Studio Ghibli film. What better way to start being in the zone again than by watching Grave of the Fireflies– another Studio Ghibli production, this time written and directed by Isao Takahata.

Grave of the Fireflies is based on the 1967 semi-autobiographical short story of the same title by Akiyu Nosaka. The film revolves on the story of two siblings, Seita and Setsuko, during the final period of the Second World War where they struggled to survive on their own. The film is also set in Kobe, Japan – a city which has also been greatly destroyed during World War II.

The film opens with Seita being seen slowly dying of starvation (this is set at Sannomiya Station on the 21st of September 1945 which is shortly after the end of World War II). A janitor in the train station then started digging into Seita’s body and found a candy tin in his pocket. He threw it away and from there, Setsuko’s spirit, Seita’s younger sister, appeared. Seita then starts narrating the story and goes back to March 16-17, 1945.

Watching the film itself is depressing. Seita, a 15-year old kid had to grow up quickly in order to support his 4-year old sister, Setsuko. At a very young age, they had to experience the pain of losing everything, especially their parents, in a war they have no involvement with in the first place. At a very young age, they had to experience rejections from their relatives and from the society they belong to. I guess this is what war does to a person right? Some people because they too have nothing to spare themselves become callous, become robots with no sympathy at all towards the likes of Seita and Setsuko.

One of the most heartbreaking scenes for me was when Seita saw his dying mom, completely wrapped in bandages with an arm cut off and had nothing else to say to him but a silent goodbye. Seita, who’s only a minor, had to witness sensitive scenes like that because he had to, because the war forced him to. I just couldn’t imagine the emotional burden he had to bare.

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It was also very devastating to see a young girl, slowly succumb to illness. Seita did what he could to save his sister, but in the end, he too, lost his own battle. I can’t forget the part where he asked a doctor’s help, but that doctor just heartlessly ignored his plea.   Seita’s reaction upon seeing his sister hallucinating was also heartbreaking. The pain of seeing your love one dying and the fact that you just couldn’t do anything about it is immeasurable.

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On the other hand, what’s admirable about this kind of animated film is its capability to capture human emotions in a very realistic manner. Those minute details that when put together give the film a realistic feel is something worth mentioning- Setsuko fidgeting upon knowing she can’t see her mom ‘yet’, Seita’s reaction when she saw her sister hallucinating, those quiet moments when the siblings are just sitting side by side like that in the train enjoying their ride; those reactions of awe, amazement, sadness, someone who’s trying to hold back his tears, Studio Ghibli was able to capture it all.

This film did show the bright and dark side of humanity and I couldn’t agree more with Akiyu Nosaka when he declined to have a live action version for this film.

“Grave of the Fireflies author Akiyuki Nosaka said that many offers had been made to create a film version of Grave of the Fireflies.[4] Nosaka argued that “[i]t was impossible to create the barren, scorched earth that’s to be the backdrop of the story.” He also argued that contemporary children would not be able to convincingly play the characters. Nosaka expressed surprise when an animated version was offered. After seeing the storyboards, Nosaka concluded that it was not possible for such a story to have been made in any method other than animation and expressed surprise in how accurately the rice paddies and townscape were depicted.(Grave of the Fireflies, Development, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grave_of_the_Fireflies)

(Although there were live action versions eventually released in 2005 in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II and another one in 2008. I’ve tried watching the former but the effects are just too obvious in this one, hence, it doesn’t feel as ‘authentic’ as the animated version.)

Overall, I’d rate this film 9 out of 10. Each film has a flaw of its own but this one is near perfect for me because the creator had been courageous, bold and accurate enough in showing how harsh and how ‘evil’ people can be when they are pushed to their limit, when they are left with almost nothing and most importantly, how the love of a family is more than enough to ‘survive’ in spite of all the hardships in life. My heartfelt gratitude to Akiyu Nosaka and the whole of Studio Ghibli for bringing such a great film to life!

(Photos not mine, credits to their rightful owners)

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