Even if you haven’t seen Grave of the Fireflies, if you follow cinema closely then you’ve probably heard of it. Isao Takahata’s 1988 animated feature has a notorious reputation as the saddest film ever made, a tear-jerker of unthinkable power. Sure enough, there was some sniffling heard in the room during the film’s climax. But not every eye in the house was wet, because it does not always seem that Takahata intends his movie to be a barrel of sorrow. Sometimes it’s more like a vehicle for the delivery of anger.
In the opening shot, an emaciated boy named Seita falls over dead in a train station. “September 21, 1945: That was the day I died,” his ghost informs us via voiceover. No one can accuse Takahata of a bait-and switch: he makes it clear from minute one that this is going to be a film about kids suffering. The rest of the movie is one long flashback, as Seita and his sister Setsuko are made homeless by a World War II firebombing and struggle to survive in the starving nation afterward.
Seita and Setsuko’s story is one of small joys, even amongst their soul-crushing environment. A day at the beach or the the gathering of fireflies to light their makeshift shelter are moments of pure happiness to light up their lives and make the uglier moments (like the disposal of their mother’s body) disappear. Yes, there’s a fly-infested corpse at the beach as well, but Seita and Setsuko are trying to re-live the days when they didn’t have to fear such things. Their father is a highly-placed naval officer, so they have no doubt that he’ll bring those days back single-handedly.
And yet, there are certain people (including myself) who will watch this film and get angry at Seita’s utter lack of doubt. The fact is, he has a home for himself and his sister after their mother’s death. A distant aunt takes them in, and though she is a resentful person, she’s not abusive or neglectful and the biggest war in the history of the world is going on outside. Maybe Seita is actually supposed to be much younger than he’s made to look, but it seems that he should be old enough to understand that the aunt isn’t wrong: he’s able-bodied and food has to be paid for.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Seita and Setsuko use those small joys early to make themselves oblivious: during that sweet frolic at the beach we can see sores on Setsuko’s back, but neither the kids nor the audience will yet want to admit what is happening. Their plan of taking an out-of-the-way shelter and making it into a home is the very quintessence of naivete, exposed for what it is the very first time they require running water.
Grave of the Fireflies has a reputation as an anti-war film, but that doesn’t seem quite right. This sort of story could have followed a war, but it also could have taken place during the American Great Depression or in the aftermath of the earthquake that rocked the Japanese city of Kobe in 1995. Instead, it was discussed at Movie Klub that the film is anti-Imperial Japan. Seita, like the Japanese army at the time (including his father), is so prideful and oblivious to the starvation going on at home that he allows an easily preventable disaster to strike. That’s not a perfect metaphor – who would the resentful aunt represent? – but it does make Seita’s immature and inexplicable behavior more palatable.
Whether you buy into metaphorical readings of this film or not, there’s no question that Grave of the Fireflies is a pure heartbreaker. Seita loves Setsuko, and she idolizes him, which makes their failure all the more tragic. No matter how naive they might be, Takahata makes sure that their naivete always comes from a place of childlike innocence. Setsuko’s pain at having to sell her mother’s kimonos is real, and sincere, no matter how much a pragmatic adult might explain it away by saying that “she won’t be needing them.” That’s just the first agonizing scene in a movie filled with them; you won’t regret watching it, but you should bring tissues.
Reviewed by Mark Young