Studio Ghibli was founded in 1984 by director Hayao Miyazaki and producer Toshio Suzuki. Another member who quickly joined their ranks was Isao Takahata, who had come into the animation business working on some television series (I’m only familiar with his anime version of Heidi: A Girl from the Alps, which was aired by some Peruvian network at some point during my childhood), and gotten into feature films by producing Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Laputa: Castle in the Sky, which I’ve already written about. This is all to say that he already had a relationship with Miyazaki and his work, so it isn’t surprising that once Ghibli became a reality, Takahata became the first person other than Miyazaki to direct a film for the Studio.
Takahata decided that his firs project for Ghibli be an adaptation of Akiyuki Nosaka’s semi-autobiographical novel Grave of the Fireflies, a grim tale about two Japanese children’s struggle to survive the last years of World War II. It’s not necessarily the kind of material you would associate with animated movies, even if you come from places such as Japan, where animated movies aren’t meant solely as children’s entertainment. And even in that case, Grave of the Fireflies was very much intended to be seen by people from all ages, despite being an incredibly sad movie whose plot could be accurately summed up as the slow process by which two orphan children starve to death.
I am, of course, being facetious. Grave of the Fireflies is so much more than just a sad movie. Yes, it is quite depressing, but it is also one of the most powerful cinematic experiences that I’ve ever had, and an essential watch for anyone who loves film. To talk about the plot a little bit, it focuses on young teenager Seita, and his five-year-old sister Setsuko, who stay together trying to find a way to get food and survive after their mother is killed in an air-strike, and their father is away serving in the Japanese army. The movie opens on September 21, 1945, as Seita explains to us, in voice-over, that that was the night that he died.
Like I said above, it is obviously not the easiest movie to watch, which brings me to the fascinating fact that, upon its original release, the movie was exclusively screened as a double-feature with Hayao Miyazaki’s innocent tale of childhood and forest creatures My Neighbor Totoro. What makes this release strategy even more fascinating is the fact that Grave of the Fireflies, the film about wartime sorrow, and not the comedic fantasy, was considered the most likely to succeed. Apparently, movies like Totoro were rarely made in Japan at the time, and the Studio felt like an “important” tale about Japan’s past would make parents interested in taking their children to the theater.
It’s not so much the idea that you would pair such a hopeful and optimistic film with such an emotionally exhausting one that boggles the mind. Neither is it the fact that I couldn’t possibly conceive what order to show the movies in (Ghibli, curiously enough, did not specify either, leaving the order of the screenings up to the exhibitors). It’s the fact that you would decide to pair up Grave of the Fireflies with any other movie at all. I couldn’t even fathom the idea of watching a trailer before this movie, let alone anything after. Not after a movie that demands as much from my emotions as this one.
It would be an understatement to say that this is one of the saddest movies I have ever seen, and mostly any way I try to describe it will make it sound like a horribly exhausting and depressing movie to watch, and yes, it is quite depressing, and it will probably make you cry, and be angry and sad about the current state of the world, but at the same time, these are all things that need to happen, and while incredibly sad, it is also a beautiful, beautiful movie. None other than famous film critic Roger Ebert praised the film for its portrait of humanity, and the tender, loving relationship between Seita and Setsuko.Ebert pointed out to a couple of key scenes, like when Seita playfully catches an air bubble while bathing Setsuko, and, most notably, when the siblings catch a bunch of fireflies to light the hillside cave that they’ve adopted as their home.
These are just some of the movie’s numerous moments of beauty. The many instances in which it presents a kind of love and care that can almost only be present in childhood, a time free of ideology. This last part, I think, is a very important factor in Grave of the Fireflies’s ultimate message. As much as it is a portrait of the endurance of a tender relationship, it is an angry movie about the importance of being children, and the absolute folly of war and violence. To illustrate this, I point to the moment where Seita reacts in absolute outrage when finding out that Japan has surrendered, and thus, lost the war.
It’s a small moment, but it’s indicative of the movie’s ultimate goal, and the blind Nationalism that it is criticizing. As a matter of fact, a large reason for Seita and Setsuko’s tragic fate has to do with the country’s refusal to recognize that they are about the lose the war. Similarly, an aunt that initially takes the children in when they first become orphaned constantly complains about Seita, unlike her husband and daughter, not doing anything to help their country win the war. The horror of the air-strike sequences, as well as the moments involving the body of Seita and Setsuko’s deceased mother, contrast with a very short scene, in which three young girls return home one the war is over, and are overwhelmed in joy to be back in their old village, not even glancing at the thought that their country has surrendered.
All of these small moments work towards the film’s humanistic message. Although the centerpieces, of course, are the many episodes between Seita and Setsuko. It’s the fact that these are not cute children, but real human characters. Often, serious movies with children protagonists can become overly sentimental, or can mistake the forest for the trees when trying to work within the frame of a larger tragedy such as World War II. I think, for example, of the offensively misguided point-of-view of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. There is none of that in Grave of the Fireflies, which does a masterful job of paying homage to Nosaka’s novel, which was written, in part, based on the sorrow he had felt when he lost his younger sister in circumstances similar to those of the protagonists.
The beauties of Grave of the Fireflies are immeasurable. From the characterization of its children, to the may beautiful images Takahata composes with his use of light and essential drawings. It is also an angry movie. A movie that has a lot to say. I am not hugely familiar with Takahata’s work (I hope I will be by the end of this series), but the one other movie of his that I’ve seen is this year’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya, which makes me think that approaching enraging injustices through a deeply melancholic lense is something he is very interested in. Princess Kaguya is, after all, a very sad tale of repressed feminism, and Grave of the Fireflies, is similarly, a story about the tangible and tragic cost of such stupid ideologies as Nationalism. It may be a tough sit, but it’s absolutely worth watching, and one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen.
Next Time: Hayao Miyazaki’s first masterpiece, and Grave of the Fireflies’ original companion, My Neighbor Totoro.