December 16, 2010

Grave of the Fireflies

Grave of the Fireflies is one of the more depressing films that I have watched. After the release of Spirited Away, I was on a big Studio Ghibli kick. This was the third Ghibli film that I watched and by far the saddest in terms of the actual story. 

Grave of the Fireflies takes place during the firebombings in Japan during the end of the Second World War. Two young children, Setsuko and Seita flee from their home when their village is being bombed. Their mother, who is already suffering from an illness, is caught in the bombings and becomes very badly burnt. While in a shelter, Setsuko and Seita's mother dies from her injuries. The two are left alone as their father is off fighting in the war. 

Both Setsuko and Seita move in to live with an aunt, who becomes progressive cruel and cold to the two of them as food supplies run low. She reminds the two that they have worn out their welcome and urges them to leave. The two find an abandoned bomb shelter, which they turn into their new home. Having very little in the way of food, Setsuko gives Seita a fruit drop tin, which begins making a number of appearances through the film. 

The fruit drop tin often becomes synonymous with Setsuko and Seita's youth. As their supplies run low, Setsuko begins resorting to stealing from others during firebombings. As he returns home one day, Setsuko finds a malnourished Seita eating mud balls after thinking that they are fruit drops while hallucinating.

Seita never recovers from her malnourishment and in the end dies. Setsuko cremates her and keeps some of her ashes in the fruit drop tin with a picture of their father. The film ends at the end of the war with Setsuko passing away at a train station while holding the tin and looking at the picture of their father. The final scene in the film shows both Setsuko and Seita standing in a field of fireflies (which they used to light the abandoned shelter they were living in) with no damage to their clothes or bodies. This scene is one of the few times that the two appear to be genuinely happy in the film.
Now normally I wouldn't go into this much detail with the story of an anime. The truth is through that this is the strongest element that makes this film a success. This is one of the only films I can think of where Studio Ghibli has based the story off of something so real and not left off with the traditional happy ending.

For a film with such strong depressing emotions, it is amazing. Although many would watch this and say that it is nothing but sadness, I chose to look at the ending scene in the field of fireflies as the happy ending. It showed that after all the pain and suffering these two kids went through they were able to still reach peace in death.

If you haven't already put together from this review, the film is deep emotionally and is certainly worth taking a couple of hours out to watch. The animation style and music is phenomenal as always with Studio Ghibli films, but this story has to be one of the better ones that he has produced, primarily because of the realism and pain that can sometimes be forgotten when thinking about the impacts on Japan during the Second World War.


  1. Japan has for the most part ignored the war. For a long time [it may still be the case] they wouldn't teach the war at schools. Japan's view of the war was decidedly skewed. Japan's actions in Nanking the Chinese Captial in the late 30's was a staggering atrocity. No fully accurate figure of casualties has been agreed upon, but it could have been as high as 300,000 men women and children. Murder and rape was common during the three week period. Japan's has admitted to the event but disputed the numbers and some in Japan have denied the event at all. This is one of the factors why Chinese and Japanese relations are so bad.

    The Japanese Army [far more than Navy and Air Force] conducted the war in a truly brutal manner. The Bataan Death march [between 6 to 11 thousand died on the forced march.] , prison camps such as Changi and projects like the Burma Railroad [ estimates up to 90,000 asian workers and 16,000 allied POW's died] left a lasting impression. Japan has never been tasked over their actions during the war. This has led to many poor relations between countries and Japan.

    With such a media blackout in place in Japan it made it very difficult for the average Japanese to understand key events. Like the dropping of the atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    There are a great many Anime which have anti-war messages. There has been debate over if they feel war in general is to be avoided or more from the destruction that was wrought on Japan in the later half of the war.

    I think it is a bit of both. There will still be Japanese who would be deniers, but the modern Japanese is far different from that of the 1930's. Though there are still some surprises. Saburo Saki who was a very high scoring Navy ace had been very critical of the situation after the war. He had concerns over the Japanese failings to accept responsibility as well as how the military was blamed but not civilian politicians. He was critical of how the Emperor Hirohito escaped responsibility. He is quoted in an interview in response to Hirohito's involvement as saying "who gave the orders for that stupid war?" While it is true that the military held Government it has been argued that Hirohito had to be involved. he sent his daughter to America to university there and she married a American and Saki ended up with two American born gandkids and son in law. I don't know if that is a great example of moving forward or the retardation of war. Maybe both.

    Japan's involment will always be controversial. Now what has all that to do with this movie. No idea as I forgot my point. But I will say this. I think this movie is a very good anti-war one. It lacks political motivations and centers on the impact to the individuals. That's a strong message and one that can be more heard than when wrapped in politics like some other anime [The Cockpit as an example.] I agree its very well done. for me one thing that was very interesting was that it focused on the fire bombing raids rather than the Atom bombs which what the anime's focus on more often. In reality the fire bombing raids on Toyko using conventional ordnance actually killed more people than the A-Bombs and it is a interesting choice that tge director went with.

  2. I would like to point out for those who read this post when it was first put up, there has been a correction to the creator of this film. Some members of the anime community have pointed out that Isao Takahata is the creator of Grave of the Fireflies along with Studio Ghibli. I want to say thanks to those who have followed us on twitter and pointed this fact out.

  3. Scallywag, that was very thorough. I'm not going to take any political stand point here but you have some very valid points.

    Silent, Grave of the Fireflies is one that I would not watch it unless I needed to. In total, I have seen it 3 or 4 times and it's really really sad. It's definitely one of Ghibli's best.

    It is movie like this that deters me from supporting war.

  4. The way I see it, if a movie has the magnitude to deter someone from notions of war, as this film seems to have done for you Super Ksian, then I would rate that as a huge success. By showing the reality behind what war can really do to people, and not glorifying it as we have seen in so many newer forms of media, we are able to find better means for solving our conflicts.

    While I completely agree that Scallywag is thorough in his accounts of military history, I am siding with you on not taking a political stance. While I don't know enough about military history and have never really been one for politics, it tend to stay away from these issues.

    What I will conclude with though is that watching a film with this much sadness is not on the top of my list of things to do, I have to give credit where it is due and Ghibli certainly has outdone themselves with this masterpiece.

  5. Not so much a political view more...trying to add some context. The thing is the Nazi's were so organized and methodical about the camps that it totally horrified the world. To this day Germany has not been able to shake the stigma.

    Now in the case of Japan they were just as brutal as the Nazi's, but they were not as organized or methodical. Which has seemed to lessen the horror somehow. I think we [meaning the Western world] feel a certain amount of guilt about the Atom bombs. I don't think they fully realized the lasting effects of the bomb or what it would do.

    The Battle of Okinawa was in part the reason for the Atom Bomb drops. Allied forces had to fight for every square foot. Kamikaze attacks on shipping was fierce. If it was going to be this bad on Okinawa what would it be like on the Japanese mainland?

    Okinawa has a large civilian population and it was suffering massive food shortages. The civilians also were led to believe that the Allied troops were monsters who were going to commit the worst possible acts onto them and their children. The suicides involved grenades [something Marines had seen on Iwo Jima where Japanese soldiers blew themselves up] but the more impressionable situation was when Allied troops witnessed families throwing themselves off cliffs instead of being captured. From kids to adults. Seeing that haunts some of the Vets to this day. It was recorded by a war correspondent at the time and the footage is some of the saddest you will ever see.
    As late as 2008 there was debate between Okinawa and the Japanese Government over the Japanese army forcing, encouraging the civilians to commit suicide. A nobel winning author [Ob I think his name was] wrote about the incidents and was sued. The action failed to pass in the end, but it shows how the war is still defining Japanese culture. Okinawa and the Japanese Government were fighting over the suicides. The school textbooks had been changed lessening the impact and involvement of the Army. I am not sure if this has yet been resolved. The Japanese Government made a concession which read something like ``To the Okinawan people they feel the Japanese Army forced them to commit suicide.`` that`s not a direct quote but it was something like that. Not a resounding admission. So even in our late decade the war is still be debated and fought over within Japan itself.
    Now I put this down to give some context to the animes. As to my mind many of the Anime`s have to be politically motivated. I think some of the writers want/are making statements. But at the same time I think they are afraid. Its not like here where we can say what we like. I think there could be a good chance if they make to big a statement of not getting work in Japan. Writers and directors blacklisted. China made a huge deal over Chinese actresses playing in the film Memoirs of a Geisha. Part of that debate involved the war.

    I think this is hard for us to fully understand. We are not used to collective thinking like the Japanese. But I think that the anime directors are skirting the issue to get stuff passed. As an example the Zotoms that I recently watched had a heavy anti-war message, which involved the huge waste of human life in useless battles. If they had done it as a World War II piece I think they would have got in hot water. By doing it as a future story the political message gets a bit more hidden. Skycrawlers is a psudo World War II setting and again has a futility of war message. I think more and more Japanese want to deal with the war issue so they can get it over with and then move forward. At the moment its kind of like the brother with the bad drug habit that the family doesn’t want to acknowledge. Anime does sometimes push the boundaries as do some of their movies now. I think it’s a good thing and we will see more clever movies and series in the future as artists continue to push the establishment.