A Lookback on Grave of the Fireflies (animated film)

They're happy in heaven

There’s this one ani­me film that nev­er fails to be very pow­er­ful for me, and even though it’s real­ly good and total­ly worth watch­ing again… it’s sort of hard for me to revis­it even when I want to. This film is none oth­er than Stu­dio Ghi­b­li’s Grave of the Fire­flies. I’m sure many of you read­ing this have watched it too and have also shed more than a cou­ple of tears by the end of it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not that much of a cry­ba­by that I’m scared of revis­it­ing the emo­tion­al expe­ri­ence. But even though I can go back to ani­mat­ed films that thrive on mak­ing its view­ers shed man­ly tears (like the west­ern ani­mat­ed film, the orig­i­nal The Land Before Time), Grave of the Fire­flies does­n’t just invoke feel­ings of depres­sion onto the view­er, it thrives on irri­ta­tion as well. 


I think it’s most­ly because of the fact that the biggest tragedy out of every tragedy with­in the film is the real­iza­tion that Sei­ta and Set­suko’s deaths could have eas­i­ly been pre­vent­ed. Their aunt did­n’t have to be such a ter­ri­ble and stub­born old woman, Sei­ta could have swal­lowed his pride and came back to live with her, etc. It’s a great film because it shows how ter­ri­ble the effects of war real­ly is (and it does­n’t mat­ter if you’re Amer­i­can, Japan­ese, or what­ev­er, war’s just a shit­ty sit­u­a­tion all-around). How­ev­er, accord­ing to Taka­ha­ta, the true pur­pose of the film is to por­tray the chil­dren par­tic­u­lar­ly as fool­ish for not putting up with their aunt, rather than being an anti-war film. 

Hon­est­ly, I say, fuck that. I mean, yes, I agree that part of the tragedy is due to the real­i­ty that chil­dren aren’t real­ly capa­ble of mak­ing short-term deci­sions for the long term, espe­cial­ly since the orig­i­nal nov­el was writ­ten as an apol­o­gy to the author’s deceased sis­ter. But to say that the moral of the sto­ry entire­ly lies on it being Seita’s fault and that he brought every­thing upon him­self and his sis­ter for not lis­ten­ing to his elders is some­thing I dis­agree with. That does­n’t excuse the aunt, the adult here, being an insuf­fer­able piece of trash that was inca­pable of being as wise as her years when it came to deal­ing with extend­ed fam­i­ly mem­bers, who were only chil­dren that lost their moth­er — her sis­ter — to the fire­bomb­ing (their father, of course, was in the navy).

As a big brother, this film was especially powerful

I always hat­ed the aunt and stand firm to my stance that she’s a lot more respon­si­ble for this dis­as­ter hap­pen­ing than any of the chil­dren. Yes, she had a point when she insist­ed that Sei­ta should work his share of the war effort, but she should­n’t have been so damn antag­o­nis­tic to a cou­ple of chil­dren. Things to take note of: she essen­tial­ly stole the rice that they bought with their moth­er’s kimono set, con­stant­ly sub­ject­ed the chil­dren to ver­bal abuse, berat­ed Sei­ta for not going to school even though his school burned down, told Set­suko the truth about her moth­er’s death which Sei­ta specif­i­cal­ly said was a no-no, and then had the gall to fuck­ing com­plain about Set­suko hav­ing night­mares about her moth­er dying and cry­ing dur­ing the night. You told a tod­dler that her moth­er is dead, what did you think was going to happen? 

If there’s any­thing that’s hard to watch about the movie, it’s watch­ing the aunt being an insuf­fer­able human being. When you give a child a choice to leave that type of envi­ron­ment, how would you think they’d respond? Of course they’d fuck­ing leave as fast as they could.

Ghibli god tear art

I acknowl­edge that she was momen­tar­i­ly a provider despite my crit­i­cisms of her char­ac­ter: nobody’s a saint and every­one is intend­ed to be mul­ti­fac­eted and not evil (if she’s not a ter­ri­ble human being, then she’s def­i­nite­ly a fuck­ing idiot), but that’s exact­ly why I feel Sei­ta should­n’t be blamed for the cen­tral con­flict of the film for being “irre­spon­si­ble.” In this sit­u­a­tion, who would you feel should be more respon­si­ble: Sei­ta, a 14-year old boy for not mak­ing the bright­est deci­sions for both him­self and his four-year old sis­ter but had good inten­tions, or the aunt, an adult whose actions pushed her young rel­a­tives away to their even­tu­al death, how­ev­er unin­ten­tion­al it might have been? Real­is­ti­cal­ly, as flawed as every­one might be as human beings, most would say the aunt is at fault here, if not a big part of the problem.

Admit it, you wanted to hug her and tell her everything will be ok

There were a few oth­er char­ac­ters that irri­tat­ed me due to their cru­el actions as well, but at least they were jus­ti­fied, such as the farmer that start­ed beat­ing up Sei­ta to the brink of death because Sei­ta was steal­ing veg­eta­bles (although, even though there’s the war envi­ron­ment and food short­ages to con­sid­er, I think basic human com­pas­sion should have at least allowed him to stop after real­iz­ing that he was bru­tal­ly beat­ing a kid in front of his mal­nour­ished and sick­ly lit­tle sis­ter, espe­cial­ly when he’s apol­o­giz­ing). Just the same, there are oth­er char­ac­ters that do show a fair amount of com­pas­sion, like Sei­ta and Set­suko’s cousin or the police offi­cer that could have giv­en Sei­ta the prop­er pun­ish­ment for steal­ing crops dur­ing a war, yet decid­ed to let him off the hook, and also gave him a glass of water. In com­par­i­son, I just can­not stand the aunt.

The fun times don't last

There’s absolute­ly no doubt that the movie is very well-done in many respects. The ani­ma­tion is your usu­al top-notch Ghi­b­li stuff, the film does­n’t skimp out on the trans­for­ma­tion­al effects of war, and tru­ly does every­thing it can to be emo­tion­al­ly pow­er­ful and suc­ceeds at doing so. As anti-war as peo­ple make it out to be, I see it less so, con­sid­er­ing how fire­bomb­ing mere­ly serves as a back­drop to a tale that oozes of human­i­ty and por­trays how much kind­ness could evap­o­rate under such conditions. 

I have giv­en the aunt so much shit, but it’s clear that she was one of the more extreme rep­re­sen­ta­tive char­ac­ters of how much war can suck out the last bit of decen­cy out of oth­er­wise kind­heart­ed peo­ple (even I don’t deny that she was, at first, wel­com­ing and pleas­ant the first sev­er­al min­utes she was on-screen — of course, that does­n’t change the fact that she became an ass­hole). The depress­ing atmos­phere and inevitabil­i­ty of death is very con­sis­tent because of this (doc­tors could have saved Set­suko by spar­ing her a bit of food, but it was­n’t their prob­lem to wor­ry about, right?), and the only aspect of hope­ful­ness you get out of the film is in the inno­cence and pure­ness of the sib­ling rela­tion­ship between Sei­ta and Setsuko. 

Setsuko being cute

At the same time, that also makes it very hard to watch. Not because it’s bad, but it’s exe­cut­ed real­ly well, to the point where it hits home. The most tear­jerk­ing and rather touch­ing scene was after Set­suko’s death — a mon­tage of Set­suko hav­ing fun and play­ing at the shel­ter while her broth­er was away as any child would, accom­pa­nied with the song “Home Sweet Home”. It’s just real­ly dif­fi­cult to watch the after­math of war and the harsh adult real­i­ties take away the joys of child­hood from these poor kids. Heck, I recent­ly watched this again because we had to do so in Japan­ese Ani­ma­tion class, and I still want­ed to punch the aunt. But this time, I kind of start­ed to real­ize that every time I watch this movie, I make a note of becom­ing a bet­ter per­son each time. Sei­ta, who was reduced to noth­ing more than a toma­to thief, comes across as very for­giv­able to the audi­ence sim­ply because we’re pre­sent­ed with his expe­ri­ences of the war’s after­ef­fects and his rea­sons for resort­ing to such a lifestyle. How many times have I judged a per­son­’s actions with­out real­ly know­ing the rea­son­ing behind it?

P.S. Shi­raishi Ayano’s per­for­mance as Set­suko is still mind­bog­gling­ly pow­er­ful. It’s clear that she was about the same age as the char­ac­ter she was voic­ing, and she man­aged to inject a lot of pathos into such a ten­der and joy­ous voice that was all the more heart­break­ing when the sto­ry called for her passing.

2 thoughts on “A Lookback on Grave of the Fireflies (animated film)

  1. Now I real­ly want to watch this! A bit spoi­lerif­ic, but I brought that upon myself 🙂

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