For this week’s Drama and Movie Thursday, we’re still riding our Way-Back Machine. We’re stopping at 1988 to look at the excellent Studio Ghibli film Grave of the Fireflies. This movie had to be brought up because not only is it an amazing, heartbreaking story, it’s a film that makes the viewer stop and think (and maybe cry).
Grave of the Fireflies (GotF) is one of those rare movies that only require one viewing to be deeply impacted by it. While many who’ve seen it deem it an anti-war film, the director, Isao Takahata, states otherwise. Takahata says the film “is not at all an anti-war anime and contains absolutely no such message.” Instead, he states the movie was meant to follow a brother and sister as they fail to live due to societal isolation and lack of sympathy toward other people. No matter the movie’s meaning, it’s one that shouldn’t be missed.
The movie follows brother/sister duo Seita and Setsuko in 1945 Kobe, Japan. The movie begins with Seita’s death and the removal of his body, his possessions tossed to a field. We then see Seita and his young sister Setsuko in the field, followed by Seita telling their story in an extended flashback.
The story goes back to March 1945 during a bombing in Kobe. Here, viewers see the destruction of the city as the two children try to survive, losing their mother in the process. They then move in with an aunt, leave as she grows cold toward them, and the story continues to unfold from there as the duo struggle. As Seita and Setsuko live alone away from society, viewers have an opportunity to see how important they are to one another, even as circumstances grow desperate.
The beauty of GotF is how childlike innocence and pleasures mingle with a very dark, political, and adult world. The story is jarring in that–when people look back on WWII, they see old footage of bombings, movies that romanticize the ideal, or stories that gloss over the human toll the wars had–by centering on a toddler and a teenager, the world is viewed with simplicity and innocence and through someone who is torn between childhood and adulthood. They experienced the atrocities of war firsthand, and it’s insightful to see the war realistically through the eyes of the victims, albeit fictional victims.
GotF is grounded, too, in the in-between world of childhood and adulthood with the use of childhood pleasures like candy and fireflies. These serve as pieces of hope in a world that is dim and growing dimmer minutely for the protagonists. These childlike pleasures may seem meaningless to the viewers, but for a duo that experienced war, death, human cruelty, and more potential death, they mean everything and remain a symbol of hope.
With that said, the movie is jarring for those who are young and anyone who just can’t accept the darkness of the human condition. Even though I fall in neither category, once the movie ended, I found myself sitting quietly for well over an hour just thinking about the horrors of the world and the pain we inflict upon each other. GotF puts a lot into perspective and may even cause an inner peace to wash over a viewer, possibly prompting them to want to change for the better. This happened to me. It may not happen to others, but one thing for sure is that the movie will stick with a viewer.
Since the 1988 original, two live-action remakes entered the market in 2005 and 2008. The 2005 drama was made in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of WWII’s end. The story does center around the siblings, but is told from the point-of-view of their cousin. The2008 version was different from the 2005 version. However, neither packed the emotional punch the 1988 anime version did.
The original Japanese with English subtitles is the best to watch since the voice actors are more convincing. If you’re someone who can handle extreme emotions, death, and really sad movies, GotF is worth picking up. If not, avoid it at all costs. However, it is recommended to watch it once.