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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.