“Why do fireflies have to die so soon?”
Grave of the Fireflies is not a children’s movie. It cannot be compared to the films of the Disney and Pixar franchise. Heartwrenching, haunting, and tragic, it is the most devasting animation from the Studio Ghibli production. It is a harrowing war film that captures innocent people living in war-torn states, away from the soldiers in the heat of battle. The film focuses on the drastic transformation and changes the effects of war have on innocent victims and presents the audience with a shocking picture: bullets and bombs are not the only deadly forces in wartime; blind patriotism and selfishness hold an equal capacity to kill.
Even though the director, Isao Takahata denies that it is an anti-war film, the events unfolded iterates a message he constructed for the audience: in which the brutal acts of war can inflict on its nation’s people unimaginable pain and suffering. Its worse impact is directed towards the vulnerable and innocent – children.
The duality of Japan’s wartime history is personified in Seita and Setsuko who fights for survival, scrounging for food whenever they can find it and building a poor, makeshift attempt of a home in a cave. However, it is this home they truly relish in being children, albeit in the middle of a devastating war – delighting in each other’s company and swimming in the river.
The fireflies are a symbol of hope and death at the same time. They serve as a cruel juxtaposition of the fragility of life as fireflies live for a mere day, and their fragility was illustrated when Setsuko crushed one to death in the palm of her hand. At first, the fireflies were a beacon of hope that appeared every time Seita and Setsuko were lost and in despair, like how they lit up the shelter home. As the film progresses, they symbolise the loss of guidance and hope when their mother dies, and when they all begin to lose their light in their makeshift home.
Setsuko is a heartbreaking symbol of innocent victimhood, an icon the war took its worse hit on. She was a little girl, at first, who giggled and screamed when riding on Seita’s back as they flee the burning city, as if it were a game, and delighted in forming rice balls and dumplings out of mud. In the end, she tragically transformed from a little girl to a hollowed out skeleton of what once was, a cruel manifestation of what the war can do to the young and innocent. The scene moments before her death released tears i did not know my own tear-ducts had the capacity to hold.
The film also shows the audience the devastating transformation of not only its physical landscape but its people as well. In the beginning, a doctor translates the news of their mother’s death to Seita gently, and with sincerity. This is contrasted when another doctor delivered the news of Setsuko’s malnutrition with indifference and finality, despite Seita’s shouts of frustration. Also, their aunt gave them genuine concern and fed them well when the children first came into their house, but the effects of lack of food from the war led her to become angry at them, eventually leading to Seita finding other means of a home and ultimately, their deaths.
In Anime Explosion! The What? Why? & Wow! Of Japanese Animation, Patrick Drazen states through observation that animes that portray Japan during the war do not give an accurate depiction of what really happened. Instead, they present Japan as the victim of war. This is true in Grave of the Fireflies. However, we do not see the action of American soldiers in battle in the film. The bombs from the airplanes are not malicious, but instead, indifferent, and serve as a backdrop. This is a realistic representation of a war-torn city. Although an animated film, Grave of The Fireflies depicted an accurate depiction of what happened during World War II, based on an actual story. It did not censor the bandaged, mummified body of Seita and Setsuko’s burnt mother, as well as the other bodies of the victims in the hospital. It also portrayed Setsuko’s starved, skeletal body and skin graphically.
In conclusion, Takahata mocks patriotism in the most powerful way: the boy, wrapped up in blind nationalistic delusion, watches his sister die before his very eyes and does nothing. Innocence, a four-year-old girl, literally fades away.