Isao Takahata was already an established and respected animation director by the mid-1980s, but he had very much done his work under the studio system in Japan. After the success of his independent, six-years-to-complete feature, Gauche the Cellist, he was ready to branch out, and for that he’d join forces with his longtime friend and collaborator Hayao Miyazaki, whose animation style would revolutionize the game.
After producing Miyazaki’s second feature, 1984’s post-apocalyptic fantasy epic Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, the two of them founded Studio Ghibli, a company devoted to quality over speed, and imagination over just about anything else. Under the Ghibli banner, Takahata next produced Miyazaki’s 1986 outing Castle in the Sky, and he also directed a live action documentary The Story of Yanagawa’s Canals, but in 1988, Takahata returned to directing with arguably his greatest work – Grave of the Fireflies.
1988 was a banner year for anime. Not only did Fireflies come out, but so did Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro and Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira. All three represent to Western audiences what anime could be, and what set it apart from “cartoons” made over here. All three films are also about Japan, in different ways. Totoro is clearly a kids’ film, but it deals with loss, with the fear of growing up, and hanging on to innocence as long as possible; Akira, totally conversely, deals with Japan’s growing technological superiority at the expense of its humanity, and with being the only truly post-apocalyptic country on Earth; and Grave of the Fireflies deals, rather bittersweetly, with the futility of war, the toll it has on the land, its people, and most profoundly, on children. It’s one of the saddest films you’re likely to see.
While Miyazaki only really made two films that dealt with contemporary Japan (Totoro and The Wind Rises), Takahata’s work is about almost nothing else. His films are much more melancholy, even if they’re funny, and he uses the medium to depict real, or semi-real, events. If someone would have thought the same company which produced magical adventures of giant bear-creatures and floating castles could also make a personal and tragic elegy about two kids trying to survive before it happened, they’d probably be laughed at. But such is the dichotomy of the two Ghibli co-founders.
Grave of the Fireflies is the story of a young boy named Seita and his much younger sister Setsuko and their life during WWII, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the beginning of the U.S. bombing of Japan that commenced. Any hope you may have of a happy ending is dashed in the opening scene when Seita is shown dying of starvation amid a dozen other children at a train station. We flash back about six months to Seita and Setsuko having to leave their home in Kobe because of incoming bombing. Their mother tells them to head on and she’ll meet up with them later. Their father is never seen but we’re told he’s in the Japanese Naval fleet in some capacity, hence he’s off fighting in the war.
Their town is bombed and when Seita and Setsuko reach the next town, they’re told their mother is in the hospital. Not with appendicitis, guys; she fell victim to one of the bombs. Takahata doesn’t hold back on this. She’s completely bandaged up but we can see the texture of the scarred skin that protrudes, and the blood on every strip of gauze she’s wearing. It’s a shocking moment, and one Seita tries to shield Setsuko from as long as possible. They go to stay with a relative of their father, who is never very nice to them but gets steadily more mean as their stay continues. She accuses them of being freeloaders, and yells at Seita to shut Setsuko up when she begins screaming and crying in her sleep, an apparently nightly occurrence. After a little while, the siblings decide to leave and venture off on their own, and the relative barely bats and eye.
The symbolism of the title comes from when the pair move in to an abandoned bomb shelter and release fireflies into the cave for light. Setsuko loves them, but is horrified the next day when she discovers all of them have died. “Why do fireflies have to die so soon?” she asks, and asks why their mother had to die as well. She buries the fireflies outside the shelter. Having given most of their supplies and money to their aunt to buy food, and with their own rations growing ever smaller, Seita is forced to start stealing from local farmers, but even that doesn’t last long. As Setsuko gets sicker, the doctors say all she needs is more food, but provide no way for them to get it. The end of the war, and the realization that their father’s ship was downed in the battle, do not bring an end to their suffering and eventually the inevitable happens.
Like the best of Studio Ghibli, Grave of the Fireflies peppers in reality and pathos with its story of children trying to remain strong through play and imagination. Seita and Setsuko are just two of the thousands of displaced kids who met similar fates during and after WWII. While Takahata has always maintained the film is not anti-war, it does show the ones who truly suffer during such times. He makes sure we know the ultimate outcome (the deaths of our two lead characters) at the beginning of the movie, because no matter who wins any war, the result is the same: dead innocents. It does end on a bit of a hopeful note, though, with the spirits of Seita and Setsuko surrounded by fireflies overlooking a modern-day Kobe and all of its prosperity. Cities and populations can survive horrible adversity, you just might lose a few fireflies along the way.
Next week, a film that has been unavailable in North America until now. A treatise on nostalgia and its power to keep people where they are, Only Yesterday continues Takahata’s exploration of Japan and her people. And it’s a wonderful movie.
Let me know your thoughts on Grave of the Fireflies in the comments below!
Images: Studio Ghibli