The animated masterwork Grave of the Fireflies was first released on April 16 1988 alongside Ghibli fan-favourite My Neighour Totoro, so fittingly the two films have just been rereleased as a tandem to UK cinemas. Hayao Miyazaki’s Totoro is significantly lighter in tone, its eponymous creature’s adorable figure inspiring a plethora of merchandise in the form of t-shirts and – go figure – cuddly toys. The same can’t be said for Grave of the Fireflies, whose legacy endures by virtue of its acclaim as the darkest of the Studio Ghibli catalogue. The film begins with the death of young Seita, slumped against a train station pillar with a final breath parting from his lips. We’re then transported back to the World War II bombing of Kobe and its devastating effect on Seita’s community – the death of his mother, in particular – which leaves the 14-year-old as sole guardian of his baby sister, Setsuko.
Look to any given rave review of the picture and you’ll find many choose to term it as the quintessential ‘anti-war film’. It’s a reasonable albeit reductive platitude that consigns the picture to its status as a blunt decrial of the horrors of war, while overlooking its more pressing concern as a tender yet harsh portrayal of a maladjusted youth. The rerelease has even been glossed over in critical mini-reviews, complete with the usual descriptors of an ‘unflinching’ look and its ‘devastating’ impact. While war is objectively a horror that subtracts physically and spiritually from the poor souls of Kobe, the film is far more interested with the nature of human persistence in the wake of these unexpected subtractions.
In any case, director Isao Takahata makes no attempt to truly anything of substance about war, nor does he have any urge to do so. He famously denounced critical claims of Grave of the Fireflies as an ‘anti-war film’; instead, he stated a wish to give contemporary Japanese youth a pinch in the arm by demonstrating to them the effects of a youth isolated from its society. This admission is key to bypassing the simplistic ‘anti-war’ categorisation and overcoming one’s own bias towards either Setsuko and Seita, or their outwardly stubborn – and, to some – seemingly cruel aunt.
While thumbing through discussion in preparation for this piece, I noticed a few viewers refer disparagingly to the children’s aunt as ‘an evil bitch’. The case for this perspective draws from the aunt’s blunt address of her niece and nephew in the face of their demands which, to viewers on the opposing end of the spectrum, come across as fiercely demanding in light of the war-torn circumstances. “You keep saying you want rice, but do you do anything to earn it?” asks their aunt. “No. I give you rice, and yet you still complain.” To further aggravate her, the kids leave dishes for her to wash up and emit barrage of noise. Are they pushing it, or is their aunt too cranky?
The Battle Within
Two days ago, a friend posted an image on my Facebook containing a Hayao Miyazaki quote that adequately illustrates the themes of his work. Here it is in full:
“I am incredibly surprised at how well-received my films are in America. I never expected them to be, because even in Japan, they are highly controversial. In a typical animated film, there will be a ‘good’ character, and an ‘evil’ character. The movie will then focus on telling the story of how the good character struggles against, and eventually defeats the evil character. My films, however, do not adhere to this plot structure.
“I do not think that heroes should be portrayed as strapping young men that save the day by fighting against and overpowering the evil beast. Children needn’t grow up believing that they need physical strength to be considered ‘strong’. I also find that women are all too often portrayed as weak, helpless, or in need of rescuing, and it is often a strong, young prince who comes to save her from her struggles. Many of my movies have strong female leads – brave self-sufficient girls that don’t think twice about fighting for what they believe in with all their heart. They’ll need a friend, or a supporter, but never a saviour. Any woman is just as capable of being a hero as any man.
“When I say ‘hero’ do not picture someone with the strength to fight and conquer evil – because evil is not something that can ever be conquered or defeated. Evil is natural. It is innate in all humans. But while it can’t be defeated, it can be controlled. In order to control it, and live the life of a true hero, you must learn to see with eyes unclouded by hate. See the good in that which is evil and the evil in that which is good. Pledge yourself to neither side, but vow instead to preserve the balance that exists between the two.”
Although Miyazaki did not direct this particular film, his unimpeachable sentiment is one shared and dispersed throughout the entirety of the Studio Ghibli output. Grave of the Fireflies has since been remade twice in 2005 and 2008, though thankfully not by the House of Mouse. One can imagine the Disney iteration candidly milking the tragedy with hollow pangs of heightened emotion, a singular death precipitating an iron-clad character progression.
In 2012, Disney bucked their own trend with the release of Pixar’s Brave, led by a strong female charge in young Merida, a young heroine who doesn’t conform to the typical curvy princess mould, nor is she helplessly subservient to the charms of a dashing young prince. Pixar subverts these conventions through Merida’s refusal of her father’s choice of suitors; she is a skilled archer and more than capable of taking care of herself, thank you very much. The deceptively antagonistic bears increase in rank due to none other than Merida’s mother Elinor, sprouting a few extra hairs after consuming a bewitched cake. Elinor’s transformation signifies and renders literal the monstrous potential of the prideful individual and their communicative shortcomings. The film’s overarching battle is therefore directed toward the conflicting wishes of Merida and her mother, as opposed to traditional notions of good vs. evil.
Brave is hailed as ‘lesser Pixar’, and one wonders whether this is due to the film’s bold subversion of tropes ingrained in children’s fantasy animation. Could this oversight carry into the simplistic reading of Grave of the Fireflies as a film about the objective horror of war, of two children’s struggle against the enduring spectre of raining fire?
No Quarter Given
Let’s move past the outwardly pushy aunt and address the behaviour of Setsuko and Seita while taking care to similarly avoid drawing black-and-white conclusions over their temperament. Seita may not be the ‘strapping young lad’ that Miyazaki ascribes to Disney productions, but his impassioned protection of younger sister Setsuko up until her unavoidable death is nothing short of selfless and commendable. If fault should be found in his actions, it’s the fact that he cordons himself and his sister off from the rest of society; they’re seen tucked away in their isolated riverside den with barely enough supplies to last them the night, denying the impermanence of their apparent safe haven. The modest residence is a direct result of Seita’s refusal to yield to his aunt’s demands and disciplined rationing; unusually, his loving nurturing of Setsuko is a death sentence fuelled by an unwavering sense of pride.
Seita harvests for the pair of them, yet expects the rest of the world to overlook his exclusivity and give him something extra. “Where am I supposed to get food!” he screams at a local doctor, failing to realise he shares an equal predicament with everyone else in town. In the aftermath of war, all are humbled; the rich are brought unto a level pegging with the poor. Setsuko’s dying wish for ‘ice cream and fruit drops’ infers the children’s’ hardship in adjusting from a life of privilege into one of extreme poverty, from wealth to a lack.
Still, we can’t afford the children the same judgement as laid on the aunt by those predisposed to a swift critique. Their pained transition is illustrated tenderly, such as when Setsuko observes a mother and daughter skip past on the street. It’s a passing moment that needs no explanation, and Takahata’s reluctance to drive home the sentiment renders it quietly devastating.
In Brave, Merida is warned to ‘mend the bond torn by pride’; in much the same way, this is what Seita is tasked to do. A farmer with nothing to give the children instructs the young boy to swallow his pride before it’s too late, only to be met with a dismissive reply: “Thanks anyway. I’ll just go ask someone else.” Stealing sugar from the next farmer hardly constitutes asking nicely, though Seita gives it a fair shot regardless.
It may seem as though Takahata is wagging his finger at a perceived generational divide, sort of like Ozu if he’d harshly put his foot down. But he’s being exceptionally fair; far from a denunciation of militaristic war, his Grave of the Fireflies is a stark illustration of a cold war waged between two opposing generations in an immediate new world none of them were prepared to enter. Moreso, the film depicts the war within; not necessarily waged between the poles of good and evil, but rather the tension between pride and compromise that has a soul stepping hesitantly backwards, then forwards, then backwards again, until they slump dejectedly to the earth and forever close their eyes.