Isao Takahata’s most lauded and well-recognised work that brought Studio Ghibli acclaim on an international level, Grave of the Fireflies, turned 30 years old this Monday in the wake of the Studio Ghibli co-founder and legendary animator’s passing earlier this month. It’s an anniversary which coincides with that of long time collaborator and fellow Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro, both released in Japan as a double feature of two films that share the same DNA, yet couldn’t be more different.
Where Totoro is jubilant and hopeful in the face of struggle, using spiritual figures of nature to reconcile with and eventually overcome a troubling reality, Grave of the Fireflies is overwhelmed by the real world and man’s capability of selfishness, cruelty and destruction. Grave of the Fireflies channels the same spirituality found in Totoro and many other Ghibli films, but to tackle anti-war themes and a deep, debilitating grief. Though it’s a theme that has been prevalent throughout their work (even since before the studio had formed, with Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind), Grave of the Fireflies is probably the most explicitly anti-war Studio Ghibli film. Takahata’s focus on WWII from a Japanese perspective was later explored by Miyazaki in his 2013 animated historical drama The Wind Rises, the story of Jiro Horikoshi, which was intended to be Miyazaki’s last film for Ghibli before his supposed retirement. It didn’t take.
Grave of the Fireflies’s reflexive, mournful tone is shared with its source material, a 1967 short semi-autobiographical story of the same name that by Akiyuki Nosaka, which reads more explicitly as an apology of sorts to his fallen sister. Takahata himself had survived an air raid on his coastal hometown of Okayama; the result of these shared traumatic experiences comes together as a thoughtful, haunting reflection on the cost of war, putting faces and creating empathy towards a death toll that is so large to the point of being almost incomprehensible.
We’re aware very quickly that this isn’t standard Studio Ghibli fare. The film opens on a foreboding note, as we see the spirit of the protagonist Seita and his young sister Setsuko join together, surrounded by an abundance of fireflies. This is the day he died of malnutrition, surrounded by a multitude of boys just like him. He’s just another number. We then snap back to the past, to see a fresher faced-Seita and Setsuko before the Americans firebomb their hometown of Kobe. After their mother is injured, the two set out to the country with a distant relative, an aunt who becomes increasingly prickly. With the constant air-raids, struggle for food and a less-than-welcoming host, Seita and Setsuko, and in turn the audience’s only solace is in each other. Lush, beautiful landscapes and cityscapes are all burned to ash, care turns to desperation.
The fireflies encountered throughout the film simultaneously exist as a beacon of hope, and a visual metaphor for the firebombs dropped on Japanese cities and the victims they claimed – in this case, Kobe. They’re first seen hovering around Seita and Setsuko, as if they’re surrounded by the spirits of the dead, who have fallen victim to the same circumstances as they. In one particularly haunting instance, after Seita and Setsuko find all the fireflies that have perished overnight, Setsuko asks “why do fireflies die so young?” The film eventually provides the answer, but it’s no comfort.
As with his other masterwork, Only Yesterday, Takahata is concerned with the contrast between the world of the child and the world of the adult. Setsuko’s innocence and joy is contrasted with, well, pretty much everyone else in the movie. Seita exists in-between these two worlds, playing a provider and protector to the young girl, trying to preserve her innocence in the face of despair and the loss of their parents by withholding the truth. In the end however, he finds himself as helpless as she is.
Seita is torn between a responsibility to his sister and a more selfish, prideful impulse that eventually gets the better of him, despite always caring for his sister. That said, the adults fail as much as the children do. Through constant reminders of Seita and Setsukos’ father, a Navy man, Takahata draws attention to a failure of heroism and nobility. The father who is bravely serving country while his children starve at home. There is no great honour to be found in war and no great reward to be found in nationalism, only desolation – families left in ruins equal to the firebombed cities, hopeful lives snuffed out due to pride and foolishness.
This contrast and eventual conflict of childhood innocence and adult cruelty (with plenty of foolhardiness between the two) makes Grave of the Fireflies a particularly troubling film to experience. Despite its visual beauty, polish and charming protagonists, unlike Totoro, there’s no otherworldly saviour or companion to be found. Little hope is left by the end, the only solace to be found is in the film’s spirituality, the little ray of hope that this catastrophe isn’t necessarily the end of all things, but a lesson to be learned.
You can catch Grave of the Fireflies on Film 4 this Saturday night. Prepare to cry.