Anime Review #41: Grave of the Fireflies

Typically, the second week of each month would see me post another edition of Navem Eos on the list. However, this week also happens to fall upon the same anniversary range as that of the atomic bombings on Japan during the Second World War. Hence, I couldn’t ignore the timing for this kind of post.

I must admit that the era of the Second World War is not one of the topics that I have exquisite knowledge about, but I do know this: 75 years ago, on the 6th and 9th of August, after months of American-led air raids swathed multiple Japanese towns throughout, the United States dropped a pair of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively, resulting in the deaths of at least 150,000 people in total from the impact. One week after the Nagasaki bombings, on the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Japanese forces finally surrendered, effectively ending the Second World War, and thus convoking the transition into the nuclear arms race and the ensuing Cold War era. The tragic events and its aftermath are a reminder of St. Thomas Aquinas’ moral teaching that nothing good can be accomplished through evil means. Upon realizing this, I was spurred on to watch one anime film pertaining to the last days of the Second World War; with this, I chose one of Studio Ghibli‘s works, Grave of the Fireflies.

GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES

Before I move into my usual brief intro describing the origins of this film, let me preface by saying that, while pondering about which movie I should watch in remembrance of the occasion, I narrowed down my choices to either Grave of the Fireflies, or the 1983 Madhouse flick, Barefoot Gen – which is actually set during the events of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and is supposedly ten times more hardcore in terms of content than the former film. Eventually, I decided to settle on Grave of the Fireflies due to my slight Ghibli bias, and it also helps that I heard about this film first.

Grave of the Fireflies: a war film that you might need a lot of tissues and emotional stability for. You have been warned.

Based on the award-winning 1967 short story by Akiyuki Nosaka, who based it on his personal experience as a child during the Second World War, it was adapted into a film by Studio Ghibli in 1988, though not directed by Hayao Miyazaki (who at that time was closely involved with Kiki’s Delivery Service), as is the case with other Studio Ghibli films; but fellow director Isao Takahata, one of Ghibli‘s co-founders. Widely acclaimed by foreign movie critics such as Roger Ebert, who named this flick as one of his personal favorites, this film is considered as one of the early works from this studio that channeled its reputation outside of Japan.

PLOT

Taking place from June to August of 1945, the story follows Seita and Setsuko, a brother and sister living in Kobe just around the time of the final U.S. air raid on said town. With the town largely in ruins, their mother dead in the firefight and their father overseas, the two are de facto orphaned and forced to fend for themselves in this new, devastating world of theirs. At first, they live with their aunt in her home, living life as normal children would, but growing weary of her cold attitude towards their way of life and perceived under-appreciation for the war effort, they decide to pack up and settle on their own terms, taking up residence in an abandoned bomb shelter just on the outskirts of town. From there, the two of them live a modest life, living off the generosity of the townsfolk as well as what’s left of their family savings, and brightening their lives with buckets of fireflies which follow them around throughout the entirety of the movie.

Seita plays with Setsuko on the beach. Unlike most beach episodes so common nowadays, this one’s pure at heart and shows kids trying to be kids even in the hardest times.

Eventually, supplies begin to run low, and faced with Setsuko’s growing illness and her growing despair of knowing about her mother’s death, Seita resorts to desperate measures to keep the two of them alive, risking himself by breaking into peoples’ houses and farms and stealing whatever he can to survive. Unfortunately, she does not make it through, dying of starvation just shortly after Seita learns of the Japanese surrender, and that his father might have perished at sea. Now alone, with nothing left for him, Seita ends up living the life of a street urchin in a newly-restored Kobe, eventually passing away in September of that year.

The movie ends with Seita and Setsuko’s spirits, who were seen in the background watching over the moments that played out in the film, sitting on a lonely wooden bench on a hill overlooking their hometown of Kobe, which has fully recovered and modernized, 43 years after the horrors of the Second World War.

WHAT I LIKED

Seita and Setsuko surrounded by a flock of fireflies in their new home.
  • The story’s about as emotionally grappling as it can be. Whereas most war movies tend to focus on the action of planes engaging in aerial dogfights, tanks blowing crap up and the heroic acts of soldiers on the front line, this one shifts the focus away from that, and rather on the struggles of survival in a war-torn area, and it pulls out well at bringing about a tale of heartbreak, hope, and hardships. It’s certainly one that can tug at your emotions if you’re not prepared for what’s about to come on screen and after – I don’t even know how I was spared from the tears that many have experienced after coming out of this film.
  • For a Studio Ghibli film story involving one of the deadliest wars in human history, it handled quite well the subject matter at hand, and portrayed it in a very realistic manner. There won’t be any talking fish in this story, alternative spirit worlds or fantastical creatures living among humans and interacting with them. Instead, the setting stays true to the real world and its timeline, and coupled with its visuals was able to accurately capture the darkness of war and the toll it had on those involved – most especially main characters Setsuko and Seita. In seeing these, I couldn’t help but think of Mr. Miyagi’s little quip during The Karate Kid, Part II about the horrors humans have inflicted upon each other during war: “Why we all so stupid?”
  • Many people when discussing Grave of the Fireflies point and give acclaim to its anti-war message, which ironically was actually contrary to director Takahata’s intentions when he created this film. However, what I found more compelling was its attention to the austerity of Seita and Setsuko’s lifestyle during those times, and how they managed to keep their spirits up through the hardships. They reveled themselves in simple acts to pass the time – be it chasing after fireflies, playing at the beach, singing songs, or going on long walks from here and there. I feel this message spoke to me the most, as if it was saying that you don’t need lavish and luxury to live – it’s the simple moments with those you care about that matter the most. That, I believe, speaks more relevantly as to the core of the film than it being about the evils of war.

WHAT I DISLIKED

No comment here, just… what?
  • One scene that I felt seemed out of place was during the film was at the 68-minute mark. Here, Seita has finished making his run-through the town looking for supplies to steal. He runs through the burning town, and seems to look at the sky and make a bit of a fist-bump in the air. It almost seemed like he was… happy that this air raid was going on, which made it not only uncomfortable to sit through but also a bit out-of-character.
  • Another thing that was minor, yet I thought would have been nice to include was a timestamp to indicate how long the story has progressed for to add to the historical touch. We know, for example, that the story took place between 5 June and 21 September of 1945; but I would have also liked if the movie added some timestamps as well to indicate some sort of historical progression. For example, Setsuko’s death comes right after the Japanese surrender – which took place on 15 August of that year – but the viewer wouldn’t know that unless if they were familiar with the war’s history.

CHARACTERS

The whole film itself is entirely character-driven and capably displays the flaws and strengths of the characters written in – and the consequences of their actions are played upon by these.

The movie puts a lot of weight primarily on the character traits of Seita and Setsuko, who are brother and sister respectively, and wholeheartedly succeeds in grabbing the viewer’s sympathy towards them and their situation. From their innocence being taken away from them to their quest of survival in war-torn Kobe, the brief moments of joy they have with meals and fireflies, and especially their sadness at seeing the world around them crumble into pieces, Grave of the Fireflies makes the most of these moments and uses them to flesh out the sibling bond in a way that not many shows can these days. What’s even more chilling is that in some parts of the movie, we catch a glimpse of Seita and Setsuko in their spirit forms, roaming through the fields of present-day Kobe while the story literally flashes before their eyes – a reminder of the unfortunate fates that would befall them by the end of the movie.

Of special note, Seita also got some nice touch of development in this story, as we see him literally grow up fast, taking on the role of the family breadwinner after the passing of his mother and in the absence of his father. In spite of this, the creators were able to maintain his child-like traits, and he’s not prone to his own faults as well, such as his pride and that he’s not above breaking into people’s homes during an air raid to find supplies. Above that though, his growth captures the essence of what millions of children had to face during the Second World War; not just those in Japan, but also in Europe and other parts of Asia where it raged heavily.

MUSIC

Grave of the Fireflies had a pretty simple soundtrack to its name, and if I were to give one word to describe it, it would be “sentimental”. It was a nice way to accompany the frolic and tragedy of both our protagonists, highlighting the tight bond between them and highlighting the struggles that they had to go through to make ends meet. Yet, it also left me evoking a time far different than what it was now – which is something that Studio Ghibli quite excels at. Feel free to check out some of the pieces that were included in this movie, such as its twinkling opening song, or the stirring rendition of Home Sweet Home by Amelita Galli-Cruci from the movie’s final moments.

FAVORITES

Favorite moment: For all its depressing nature of death and destruction, the part where Setsuko and Seita are playing on the beach really speaks a lot about the universal nature of childhood, and trying to find solace through the simplest of things. With this farce going on worldwide, it seems all the more relevant now than ever.

Favorite character: Setsuko.

CONCLUSION

Grave of the Fireflies was quite a moving experience, and certainly one of the few films with some very tough content to spill out – proving once more that anime can be a great medium for showcasing some very complex, real-world problems that still persist to this day. It was a beautifully developed, yet tragic tale stamped with that unique Ghibli touch to it. All in all, this movie was a big, emotional wake-up call that I should be thankful for the life that I’m having right now, even with all the restrictions placed upon us; because after all, hey – it could be ten times worse.

SCORE: 7.8/10

“In the meantime however, Venerable Brethren, the world and all those who are stricken by the calamity of the war must know that the obligation of Christian love, the very foundation of the Kingdom of Christ, is not an empty word, but a living reality.” (Pope Pius XII, Summi Pontificatus, 1939)

20 thoughts on “Anime Review #41: Grave of the Fireflies

  1. While author Akiyuki Nosaka lost his adoptive father during the firebombing of Kobe, it is also of note that movie director Isao Takahata was himself a childhood survivor of the firebombing of Okayama City–this production was profoundly personal to both men. In fact, when the story was set to become a movie, Nosaka himself insisted that it be anime, saying that regular film simply could not convey the immensity of devastation that the war inflicted. This film has long been a favorite of mine, and I last reviewed it, here: https://anotheranimereview.com/2018/07/15/at-the-movies-3-classic-sailor-moon-movies-princess-mononoke-and-grave-of-the-fireflies/.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you very much for sharing this information – you looked into its background quite extensively! It sure is one rollercoaster of a film, and the fact that both men were caught up in the devastation of WWII really shows that war does something to shake up a man – especially those who were there to see it.

      I enjoyed reading your take on Grave Of The Fireflies too David! Thanks again for sharing 😃

      Liked by 2 people

  2. A fellow Trad Catholic here. The first time I saw this film, I was teary-eyed. The subsequent times, I wasn’t so much so, but I did still feel sympathetic towards Seita, though his pride did kind of make it somewhat hard.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Paul! Welcome to my website! 😃

      It definitely is a heart-wrencher I’ll give you that. I didn’t cry on my first run, but watching this film still found a way to grip at my emotions. Even more when you realize, as a fellow commenter has, that the author based the story on his (and his deceased younger sister’s) firsthand experience living in Japan around the time of the bombing.

      I agree, it was sad to see how further down Seita and Setsuko fell as the story progressed. But from his perspective though, I kind of see why he made the decision: it was hard for him living with an aunt that gives him and his sister no respect and doesn’t appreciate their feelings (remember when she sold their mother’s kimonos? Or when she scolded them for singing and playing – which is what children do?). It’s not a good reason, but regardless it doesn’t take away how sad their fates were by the film’s close. 😰

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      1. Precisely – haunting is the word that’s best used to describe this film. Reminds me of a quote said by one of the characters from The Karate Kid, Part III: “War does something to a man. You’d have to be there to believe it.”

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  3. Grave of the Fireflies is actually my favorite Ghibli movie. It’s also one of the very few movies I can name that can still make me cry as an adult. This is also one of the few war movies that still holds up while avoiding hypocrisy or propaganda like other films. I was shocked to find out it wasn’t an anti-war movie when I did research on it a couple of years ago when I reviewed it. Sure, Ghibli made objectively better-animated films, the production still holds up. Keep in mind this came out the same year as Oliver & Company. Which movie had better animation as well as better characters and a story? Exactly. Good review though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you liked it as much as you did. I think it was a pretty well-done movie as well, and you’ee spot on that it did its best to stay away from any bias. Nothing but pure, raw storytelling to show for.

      Could you post a link to your review of Grave of the Fireflies? I’d love to check it out also! 😃 Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I remember back in 2017 after we had a few terror attacks I just casually asked my grandad if he was scared to get on public transport. He said not at all and replied “when I was a boy during the war if I went to bed I didn’t know if I would get up in the morning”. Also a friend of my grandma whose brother died in the war ( he was in the Royal Navy) told me she remembered some Americans who were staying at her house asked if she was bothered by the sound of the bombs. She just said no I sleep through it know you just get used to it.

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    1. Such is the harsh reality of it all :O At the very least, your grandparents were blessed to have a semi-comfortable experience during WWII, with a house to live in and a supportive town. My grandfather, who was born in 1937, saw his home country (Indonesia) get invaded by the Japanese who, you know how atrocious they were with their doings. He had to live in the jungle for the first few years of his life. What’s more, his father, a journalist, had been executed by the Japanese prior to the start for publishing anti-Japanese sentiments.

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  5. I remember my great grandma who lived through the war (she was born in 1915) never forgave either the Japanese or the Germans. I distinctly remember her telling me a story about the Japanese crucifying a British prisoner (I studied military history at university and I wasn’t able to verify wether or not that happened). She fell out with my mum because she invited her bosses wife to her wedding who was Japanese. My great grandma who claimed to be a Christian always strugggled to forgive. Still movies like this make me wonder about the eternal fate of children like setsuko and seita who died in the war. If they were invincibly ignorant we could have a hope for their salvation. I suppose you just have to trust in Abraham’s words will not the lord of all the world do right. Whatever their fate I trust that god will always do that which is just and I trust his judgement more than my own so I content myself with that. I found studying about the wars you the number of dead just start to become numbers after a while . You do sometimes have to remind yourself that they were people on the other side of this numbers on a page. Movies like this hammer it home

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    1. That’s sad to hear about your great-grandmother. As someone who’s been there before, it takes a lot of humility to face your enemies with love and charity, and absolve their wrongdoings, perceived or actual. I’m sure she was hugely shaken by the atrocities of WWII, but my grandfather also lived in the same period and I remember him telling me he had no animosity towards them – because he’s met many good Japanese and German folks throughout his life. I hope you don’t repeat her mistakes – remember God created the human race, with no regard to nationality.

      Your question is a touchy one. I will let Fr. Michael Muller, a 19th-century Catholic theologian, provide the answer (taken from his 1875 catechism, “Familiar Explanation Of Christian Doctrine” – source at https://archive.org/details/familiarexplana00mlgoog/page/108/mode/2up):

      “Q. What are we to think of the salvation of those who are out of the pale of the Church without any fault of theirs, and who never had any opportunity of knowing better?
      A. Their inculpable (invincible) ignorance will not save them; but if they fear God and live up to their conscience, God, in His infinite Mercy, will furnish them with the necessary means of salvation, even so as to send, if needed, an angel to instruct them in the Catholic Faith, rather than let them perish through inculpable (invincible) ignorance.

      Q. Is it then right for us to say that one who was not received into the Church before his death, is damned?
      A. No.

      Q. Why not?
      A. Because we cannot know for certain what takes place between God and the soul at the awful moment of death.

      Q. What do you mean by this?
      A. I mean that God, in His infinite Mercy, may enlighten, at the hour of death, one who is not yet a Catholic, so that he may see the Truth of the Catholic Faith, be truly sorry for his sins, and sincerely desire to die a good Catholic.

      Q. What do we say of those who receive such an extraordinary grace, and die in this manner?
      A. We say of them that they die united, at least, to the soul of the Catholic Church, and are saved.

      Q. What, then, awaits all those who are out of the Catholic Church, and die without having received such an extraordinary grace at the hour of death?
      A. Eternal damnation.”

      In short – objectively speaking, anyone who wasn’t Catholic and in the state of grace at the time of death would be damned; but in the subjective forum, God might judge said non-Catholic to have really been Catholic all this time, and saved them through His mercy, as Catholics (in spite of their adherence to a false sect). In the practical order, it would be best then to refrain from making absolute judgements about who’s in Heaven or Hell until the Church declares so. Your trust in God’s judgement and mercy over your own is the quintessential Catholic response!

      All in all, movies like these do well in pointing out the harsh reality of war. I’m reminded of a quote by Mr. Miyagi from “The Karate Kid, Part II” concerning the horrors inflicted during WWII: “Why we all so stupid?”

      Thank you for sharing though – I really appreciate hearing from you, and God bless as always Dominic 🙂

      Like

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