Grave of the Fireflies, released in 1988 in Japan and in 1993 in the USA, opens in the last moments of Seita’s young life. The story of the movie from there is of his spirit, recanting the events that brought him to his sad ending. Seita died on September 21st, 1945. Nothing else needs to be said if you know what happened in 1945 Japan.
From there we go back to a time of reasonable contentment. Seita lives with his younger sister, Setsuko, and their mother. His father is in the Japanese navy. The family reacts to air raid sirens like they’re no big deal. This time, however, incendiary bomblets fall from the sky. Seita and Setsuko are left to make their way through life on their own from then on.
A part of me feels like this test in unfair since there are few main characters in the movie. Nonetheless, I want to keep using this means of measurement. Grave of the Fireflies does not pass this test. While there are more than two female characters (Setsuko, the mother, the aunt and the aunt’s daughter) and the family characters discuss something other than their lover interests, only one has a name.
Japan in WWII
We don’t hear a lot about what it was like to live in Japan during WWII. Everything I’ve learned about the country has to do with how they were positioned and what their plans were. Grave of the Fireflies gives us an account of what it was like to be an average Japanese citizen in 1945.
I was shocked when I first saw the incendiary bomblets falling. It a different experience to hear women and children cry “It’s the American’s!” in terror. I thought to myself, did we really do this? What was the point? The point is subtle and mentioned so briefly that you might not catch it. The town that Seita and Setsuko grew up in has some kind of factory. This would be an obvious target.
What struck me most about this aspect of the movie was how clearly it laid out the emotional devastation. This movie is graphic. As if seeing the characters’ anguish isn’t bad enough, you will see the bodies and the maggots and the flies.
Despite the movies darker message, there is still something joyful to see here. This movie revolves around Seita and Setsuko as they make their way through a tumultuous period of time. These siblings adore each other. The movie is spattered with blissful moments that the siblings share with each other. With all the horror going on around them, they still find happiness.
Setsuko is young, too young to work or do anything the average person would label as essential to survival. Yet, her character is so beautifully fleshed out. It’s clear that she is a source of light, happiness and support for Setsuko. When life gets tough, she is there. I loved the bond between these two. I get the feeling their bond would be just as strong with or without the war.
One of the things I love about Studio Ghibli’s films is their “no cuts” policy. As such, we see a number of scenes that would normally be edited out for American audiences. For example, Seita and Setsuko hang out at the beach in one scene. During this, Setsuko takes of her shirt like it’s no big deal. She’s a toddler. There isn’t anything sexual about it. That said, would you see an American movie where a female toddler walks around with nothing but a diaper on?
There are a couple similar scenes scattered throughout the movie. They help to detail what average life was like for Japanese. At the end of the day, I’m against needless censorship. Even if you want to claim it is no longer normal for younger siblings of different genders to bathe together, it is still a part of history. There’s no reason to cut out something so simple.
This movie is a tear-jerker, but I also think it’s a must see. The last scene of the movie leaves you a little breathless. There were no words, but the message was clear. This is a great example of the work I expect from Studio Ghibli. Everything in animated in such detail. Even the smallest actions or gestures are intricately designed.
More than anything else, I think this is a worthwhile movie to watch just to see how the other side experienced WWII. That period of history left scars on all of us. It’s not to be forgotten.