Thoughts On: Grave Of The Fireflies (火垂るの墓, 1988)
After losing his mother after a firebombing in WWII, a young boy becomes responsible for his younger sister.
As devastating as it is confounding, Grave Of The Fireflies is a staunch animated masterpiece that refuses to be described in simple terms. In such, this is not necessarily an anti-war film, nor is this a plain tragedy, rather, in many respects this is a complex allegory about responsibility for the modern day audiences.
Grave Of The Fireflies is Isao Takahata’s first Ghibli film (Takahata and Miyazaki would release their films alternately, year after year, until the 2000s) and was adapted from Akiyuki Nosaka’s short story of the same name. Nosaka based his story, in part, on his experience living with his adopted family during WWII – in which his adopted father and one of his two sisters, who was only two-years-old, died of malnutrition. The story was in fact written as a way for Nosaka to reconcile with the loss of his sister, and later became required reading in Japanese schools. In many ways, Takahata’s Grave Of The Fireflies is a synthesis of what was in Nosaka’s book as well as what wasn’t and Takahata’s own motivations to tell the story. Much of this was articulated in a talk between the writer and director in Animerica Magazine. Here is a very inciteful two-page extract:
The full article can be found here. As Nosaka picks up on, Grave Of The Fireflies combines an ironic idealism with devastation. We see this in the descent from prosperity that Seita and Setsuko make into complete destitution. Moreover, we see this in the collision of naivety and war. From this thematic juxtaposition, Takahata seems to disillusion his audience as well as provide some hopeful shades of reality. In such, he provides a narrative about the humanity of the war-time generations of Japanese people. Earlier in this article, he suggests that those born outside of this era assume a significant distance between themselves and those who lived through the 40s. With the juxtaposition of naivety, war, prosperity and destitution, Takahata proposes an alternate perspective by essentially projecting a “double-suicide”. This, he seems to feel, resonates with his times as it does not emphasise themes of stoicism, honour and responsibility, rather, much more human flaws in emotionally lead characters. He then cites the scene in which Seita chooses to leave his aunt’s home as opposed to endure the infuriating conditions that she imposes upon him and his sister. This act of independence is, arguably, what kills Seita and Setsuko, and thus we can understand the implications of a double-suicide. However, there is a debate that underlies this action; was it for the better or for the worse that Seita left his aunt’s house?
This is an incredibly difficult question to answer, so much so that it leads us to rather see a commentary on the ironic conception of ‘unity’ that is held by Seita’s aunt. This commentary may be in direct reference to the “neighbourhood programme”, which had people report on their neighbours’ unpatriotic behaviours during wartime as well as cooperate, that Takahata mentions. And so, through irony, there flourishes a sense of division in the country. However, there are multiple instances of irony throughout this film. Two of the strongest implications come with the opening.
Here, a passerby gives Seita food so that the Americans, presumably, won’t see poverty in Japan. This would be a patriotic effort to present Japan as a strong country. However, to only care about other Japanese people, in turn Japan, for the sake of facade is unambiguously ironic.
Here, too, we have a very subtle implication of irony. What we see here is a janitor practising his baseball pitch with Seita’s deeply symbolic piece of memorabilia: Setsuka’s tin of candy. This is not just a highly dehumanising moment, but a projection of American culture. This may be a somewhat anachronistic piece of commentary as baseball was introduced to Japan in the 70s, but what we nonetheless see here is, again, the ironic neglect and disrespect of ones own country and people.
Another example of this comes when Seita is robbing homes during air raids and cheers on the bombers as they allow him to scratch his living. And with these multiple instance of irony, we see suggested a deeper rift in Japanese culture that emphasises disconnection. We can understand this to be a device that is possibly used by Takahata to disillusion modern audiences, but also to further construct a confounding narrative. What Grave Of The Fireflies can then be seen to be mining into is the famous saying: Laugh and the world laughs with you; Weep and you weep alone. And, of course, this image from Oldboy sums such a saying up better than anything else:
Staying on track, however, this pessimistic sentiment is deeply embedded into this narrative with a caveat. In such, there is focus on the idea that “Laugh and people will laugh with you; Weep and you weep alone”. This is what we see suggested with the multiple instances of ironic discommunity and division. With people as those that neglect, those that laugh with you, but turn their back when tragedy strikes in Grave Of The Fireflies, there is a parallel implication that the world remains there for you. And this certainly can be seen to be true with the symbol of the firefly that is used throughout the narrative. In the article above, Nosaka touches on the fact that lights were beginning to turn back on when his sister died; restrictions were being lifted, which implied peace. Further to this, Nosaka notes his confusion in this time of light, a time that proceeded his rapid maturation in a time of deep darkness. This mirrors the sentiment that civilisation can be neglectful; that people can laugh with you, but leave you weeping. So, with fireflies being a clear light in Seito’s period of darkness, we see nature providing some kind of a safety net or respite where people outside of their shrinking family circle do not.
The nature that is referenced here may, however, be a projection of naivety, or, rather, a childish perspective. To a child’s eyes, a firefly can be like magic. And it’s through our two main characters embracing naivety and having fun that all the levity of this narrative is found (look to the beach scene or the multiple instances in which Seito and Setsuka play and laugh). The nature, the firefly, which serves as the only respite of this narrative then seems to symbolise the independence of the faulted Seito and Setsuka. The firefly – hope and meaning in darkness – for them is difficult to grasp, and if it is squeezed to hard, the light is extinguished and the firefly is squished. This is the perfect allegory for their struggle. However, when we realise that fireflies all die very soon, a tragic end is foreshadowed. Just like fireflies – respite in darkness; hope; meaning – quickly die out, so do Seito and Setsuka. For city lights to flicker back on during this time encapsulates wholly the idea that “Laugh and people will laugh with you; Weep and you weep alone”. And I believe such a concept underlies the devastating tone of this film. Through this, we then have a story about an attempt to survive independently that results in a mortal inability to be self-sufficient. And this resonates with modern anxieties (just as much in the industrially developing Japan of the 80s as in any other highly developed country today) as there seems to be a general fear of independence and failure in young people floating in the zeitgeist. We can understand this to stem from the ever-developing competitiveness of job markets, the growing redundancy of university and higher education and the general weight that can be imposed upon people in technologically developed cultures.
It may then be us who look back to older times and think of greater unity amongst communities, maybe a stronger will within the people of the past who managed to fight for their living, that may then be disillusioned by this film. By seeing failure in the past as Takahata puts it on screen in Grave Of The Fireflies, we see a fear of, and struggle for, independence and self-sufficiency that is universal throughout history. What this then evokes is a profound sense of melancholy and anxiety. However, though this film is a tragedy, the subtle implication that light can be found in darkness, that the firefly exists in nature, seems to inject sweetness into the bitterness of life. So, just as Setsuka became Seito’s source of meaning despite her quite possibly burdening him as Nosaka’s sister did him, our own sense of meaning and drive may become a light for us, too, however burdensome and heavy it may seem to be.
Ultimately, however, all natural lights die out – no matter how long artificial sources burn on. As devastating as this is, there is always respite in the fact that the light may have once shone brightly. And such seems to lie at the heart of this film; there is no real optimism, but there also isn’t pure nihilism or pessimism in this film either; there just seems to be a highly affecting portrayal of life that, somehow, makes being seem incredibly precious.
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