I’ll go ahead and say it: Grave of the Fireflies, directed by Isao Takahata and animated by Studio Ghibli, is the greatest animated film ever made. It is the most haunting, heart-wrenching and tragic tale ever told on film, and that includes live-action films, as well. If you thought Mufasa’s death or Bambi losing her mum was too painful to watch, you haven’t felt true sorrow. But that’s not a fair comparison; the truth is, it is unfair to compare Grave of the Fireflies with the greatest work of Walt Disney or any animated film for that matter. This isn’t a children’s movie, it’s a devastating war film that has the power to make a grown man cry, sob and weep. I’m not ashamed in admitting Grave of the Fireflies brings tears to my eyes every single time I watch it.
The fact that it’s all based on a true story makes it all the more harrowing and disturbing. Don’t let my words scare you off, though. Grave of the Fireflies encapsulates so much humanity and beauty, I’m certain, without a reasonable doubt, that if you make it all the way to the end, it will make you a better person. I hope this is enough of an intro to make you watch this film. If you haven’t, I suggest returning to this point in my review after having done so, as I will explore some of the film’s deeper themes.
The film opens with a slap on the face. You see our main character sitting against a pillar in a train station. His clothes are torn, his body is covered in dirt, his frail arms rest flimsily next to him, his face lifeless against his chest. “September 21, 1945… that was the night I died.” How often does a film start with such a powerful prologue? Everything about this masterpiece is a rarity. The animation comes from a studio that constantly raises the benchmark of animation. In fact, each and every drawn shot is worthy of being framed against a wall. But what makes this film stand tall above anything remotely similar is the shocking subject matter. Grave of the Fireflies is set during the World War II, when the US was firebombing Japan in a desperate attempt to end the war.
The whole story is told through Seita’s perspective, and I mentioned before that this is based on a true story, which makes the opening death scene a cinematic metaphor. The real Seita, Akiyuki Nosaka, survived long enough to tell his story. Nosaka wrote the material this film was based on in the late 60s, and maybe the prologue symbolises the weight this tragic incident had on him’ nothing was probably ever the same again. Like Seita, Nosaka lost his little sister to the shattering effects of war. It is widely known that Nosaka wrote Grave of the Fireflies to come to terms with this loss. He blames himself for her death.
I say he lost his sister to the shattering effects of war, because war didn’t kill Setsuko, the effect it had on people did. This film is often regarded as an anti-war film, but that’s an inaccurate generalisation. We don’t witness any battles or soldiers marching into the frontlines of combat. The enemy flies above, but they’re not characterised in a villainous manner. War is a mere backdrop in this survival account, and the central theme here is how war temporarily changes who we are. It blinds us from all things human. It turns us into cruel selfish beasts, unsympathetic to the desperate needs of others. The kindness and compassion in human souls evaporate into thin air the second we are communally put in a situation where it’s every man for himself. Priorities eclipse our minds, and the fear of regret blocks our thoughts from the reality that we’re all in this together. It is only together, and with the help of one another, that we can all survive through our darkest chapters without being cursed with future guilt, shame, and remorse.
This central theme is evident right from the opening shots. We see bystanders regard Seita’s death with no empathy whatsoever. Bodies are being looked upon like they’re nothing but garbage. “Disgusting.” – “These bums are a disgrace.” – “This one’s a goner too.” At first, these remarks may come across strange to the viewer, but when Takahata takes us through the journey, we understand the sad nature of this destination. We witness the gradual surge of selflessness in the people of a bombed village. It starts with their aunt. At first, she’s welcoming and caring. Soon enough, she is ripping them off, and cursing them. She constantly mocks and humiliates Seita. Tells him he should be going to school when the school has been burned down, that he should work when he’s only 14 years of age. Eventually, she’s depriving them from food, hiding and saving the food for her own family. We hear whispers of the siblings being a burden in their house, more mouths to feed. Seita, being the son of a general, decides to take his sister and leave their aunt’s house with his pride still intact.
The transformational effect of war is also manifested in the scenes where Seita seeks the help of a doctor. When he stands above the body of his bleeding mother, the doctors delivers the bad news showing genuine sadness in their inability to help. In a much later scene, Seita seeks the help of a doctor to save his sister from dying. The news delivery is cold, like death is inevitable. No medicine is needed, only food, so the doctor could lend a helping hand, but he wouldn’t; he has his own troubles to worry about. Seita yells in frustration, but to no avail.
Seita is reduced to a thief at one point, but the viewer forgives him, because we have experienced the harsh realities of the war’s aftermath. It makes me think of how many times people have looked down at poor people stealing bread, when we have no clue what has led them to arrive to such last resorts. Nevertheless, Seita is beat near an inch of his life. Setsuko sees his face all swollen, and asks him if she should get him a doctor. When Seita hears these words coming from his little sister, he breaks down. No kid should worry about seeing a doctor.
The only hope for humanity in this story exists in the innocence and kindness of their relationship. Children are uncorrupted by the ugly world we live in. The purity of their innocence is what makes the nature of evil incomprehensible to their minds. The older we get, the less innocent we become; we’re built that way to endure the harsh realities of life. There’s another scene where Seita breaks down for the same reasons. He sees Setsuko digging a grave for the fireflies that have lit up the darkness of their shelter the night before. As the fireflies are pushed into their graveyard, we see a mirroring shot of piles of bodies being dropped into a massive hole. “Mama is in a grave too. She told me. She said mama died and she’s in a grave now.” It’s just not right to hear such heavy words coming out of a child deprived of the joys of childhood.
There are many haunting images in this film, one of the most hard to watch ones is Setsuko sucking on marbles like they’re candy or playing with bowls of dirt like its rice. What follows next is perhaps the most heartbreaking scene in the film. The war has ended and Seita has managed to get his hands on some real food. He tries to feed his sister a watermelon, but she’s too tired to quench her thirst. Setsuko sleeps and we learn that she never woke up. Setsuko’s last words are, “Seita, thank you.” Even in her last moments, she shows the kindness, innocence, and gratitude absent in adults during those hard times.
Later on, we see the only scene that isn’t seen through the eyes of Seita. In a touching montage, the viewer sees how Setsuko spent her time in the shelter absent of her brother. Watching her play around the way any child would is plain and simply beautiful. At one point in the film, Setsuko looks up at Seita, her eyes a blink away from sending tears streaming down her cheeks. “Why do fireflies have to die so soon?” Seita has no answer, and neither do I. We see two fireflies dancing around; the two dancing lights fade out in the darkness.