I trust Miyazaki. I trust that he will deliver a wonderful story that always has a hidden meaning. I trust that that story will be well executed. I trust that the animation will be superb. And I trust that the characters will be well-developed.
I do not trust that his stories won’t send me into uncontrollable sobbing fits.
Then again, while this is a Studio Ghibli production, I’m not sure how much Miyazaki had to do with it. It was actually directed by Isao Takahata, who many of you probably aren’t that familiar with. Regardless of who made it, Grave of the Fireflies is something you should only watch if you want to avoid experiencing pleasant thoughts for the next week of your life. It is beyond depressing.
Based on Akiyuki Nosaka’s semi-autobiographic novel, who won the Naoki award for literature, Grave of the Fireflies follows two young siblings, Seita and Setsuko, through World War II bombings. During an air raid their mother dies, and the brother and sister go off to live with their aunt. Eventually, they leave her house, because they cannot stand her treatment of them, and end up living in an old bomb shelter. Over time, they run out of food, and eventually Seita finds that Setsuko has been eating dirt. She passes away from malnutrition, and Seita gathers enough money to buy her a coffin and give her a proper burial. He dies in a train station shortly thereafter.
The story itself is told in flashback, through the perspective of Seita’s ghost. So yeah, it’s pretty depressing, but it does have its moments. Both Seita and Setsuko can find some enjoyment in each other’s company. Even through the bad times, like playing together on the beach or setting up their new home in the bomb shelter; however, these moments serve to make the story more tragic in a way, because they cannot last.
Oddly enough, though it is American planes that set the plot in motion through air raids, the driving antagonistic force is actually the Japanese society. Whether between their aunt, or the their base treatment at the hands of other people, there were so many opportunities for their suffering to end, but it never happens.
Wikipedia states this about the story’s origin and interpretation:
The story is based on the semi-autobiographic novel of the same name, whose author, Nosaka, lost his sister due to malnutrition in 1945 wartime Japan. He blamed himself for her death and wrote the story so as to make amends to her and help him accept the tragedy.
Some critics have viewed Grave of the Fireflies as an anti-war film due to the graphic and emotional depiction of the pernicious repercussions of war on a society, and the individuals therein. The film focuses its attention almost entirely on the personal tragedies that war gives rise to, rather than seeking to glamorize it as a heroic struggle between competing ideologies. It emphasizes that war is society’s failure to perform its most important duty to protect its own people.
However, director Isao Takahata repeatedly denied that the film was an anti-war anime. In his own words, “[The film] is not at all an anti-war anime and contains absolutely no such message.” Instead, Takahata had intended to convey an image of the brother and sister living a failed life due to isolation from society and invoke sympathy particularly in people in their teens and twenties, whom he felt needed to straighten up and respect their elders for the pain and suffering they had experienced during arguably the darkest point in Japan’s history.
Furthermore, a lot of effort went into this movie, and a lot of decisions. When the choice came down between an animated feature or a live-adaption, Nosaka wanted animation because he worried that child actors wouldn’t be able to pull the roles off. There was a lot of talent that went into the backdrops, the coloring, the characterization. Seita himself was designed as a more lighthearted boy as opposed to a heroic wartime veteran and wasn’t overly noble in order to allow audiences to relate to him more.
On top of all this, there’s plenty of symbolism, especially between life and death with the titular fireflies. The first firefly Setsuko ever holds she accidently crushes. When she and Seita move into the bomb shelter, they use fireflies as a makeshift nightlight, and in the morning Setsuko cries when they’re all dead. She buries them and mourns for them, her mother, and everything else she’s lost. Even kamikaze planes and the fires left over from air raids are reminiscent of the fireflies.
I hesitate to call this movie a must-see, unless you’re really into Japanese anime and culture. Even if you’re not, it’s not a bad film. But it’s not really something you or anyone else would want to watch more than once. I can barely stand it a second time through. Watching this movie isn’t really a fun time, but it’s not a bad experience to have. Check it out; just be prepared to feel really depressed.