When you read articles that discuss the film Grave of the Fireflies, you will see words like "masterpiece," "epic," and "awe-inspiring." This animated World War II picture from Studio Ghibli (the creative house of Hayao Miyazaki, who was responsible for animated favorites like Laputa: Castle in the Sky and Princess Mononoke) is all of those things. One word you will probably not see applied to Fireflies, however, is "entertainment." While the movie is touching on a level which few films can approach, the overall effect is anything but uplifting.
Seita and Setsuko began the war as privileged kids. Their father is a Japanese naval officer, and so they receive rations so precious that they bury the food before each air raid to protect it from looters. Soon, however, they feel the same desperation as the country's other citizens. Seita, a young man of twelve or thirteen, finds himself caring for his much younger sister Setsuko when their house is destroyed in a firebombing. Their mother dies from burn wounds received during the same air raid. The children stay awhile in the care of a distant aunt, but remove themselves to live in a bomb shelter when her cruelty becomes too much to bear.
"Okay, who stole the
Mothra egg this time?"
There isn't much more to the film in the way of plot. It is instead a chronicle of the emotional strain that was felt to varying degrees by the entire citizenry of Japan in the last stages of the war (when Allied bombers could fly over Japanese cities without resistance), expressed through the individual plight of these two children. Watching the film as Americans two generations removed from these events, we found ourselves both shamed and horrified by the events depicted. Knowing the strategic value of firebombs against a city made mostly of wood (in this case, the city of Kobe) does not communicate the terror of its people or the loss felt by those in the aftermath. Surely the Japanese military committed atrocities of its own, but after Pearl Harbor they never reached American shores, and rarely do WWII films depict the near-annihilation of entire Japanese cities. For those of us used to the scrubbed-clean, buy-war-bonds image of the Second World War, Grave of the Fireflies is an intense and frightening eye-opener.
"I'm sorry, but you're not allowed
to play Grand Theft Auto!"
There are certain scenes in Grave of the Fireflies that portray the real life inspiration for Godzilla. Sure, Godzilla's origin was inspired by the atomic bombings, but the scenes with crowds running from Godzilla as he stomps around Tokyo owe more to the fire bombings. In one nerve-wracking scene the children of Fireflies run down a street because they see only a couple of burning brands in their way, but before they get too far fire suddenly appears all around them and they have to flee the other direction. This kind of threat, which appears randomly and forces people to flee before it, seems to have scarred its way into the Japanese popular consciousness.
"Now the aliens can't read my mind!"
Hayao Miyazaki himself was only involved incidentally in the production of Fireflies. His frequent collaborator Isao Takahata directed the film, which was based on a novel by Akiyuki Nosaka. The novel is a famous one in Japan, based on Nosaka's childhood experiences the demons of which he hoped to purge by sharing the story with his countrymen. Though the character designs are clearly in the Miyazaki style (Seita is very similar to Kanta from Totoro, and Setsuko is almost a raven-haired Mei), we have trouble pairing such a relentlessly sorrowful movie with the more upbeat films that typify most of the Studio Ghibli output. Amazingly, this film was released in Japan as a double feature with My Neighbor Totoro, which is akin to pairing Schindler's List with Mrs. Doubtfire. (We hope they played Totoro as the second feature.)
If you're thinking that Grave of the Fireflies sounds like a depressing way to spend two hours, you're not wrong. A friend of ours watched the movie's last half hour and left the room sobbing. It is not, however, a movie that we recommend you ignore. In many ways it is one of the most genuine films you can see, with much of the trademark sincerity we have come to expect from Studio Ghibli, but applied to a story that is realistic and sad. There are no forest spirits or impossible flying machines in Fireflies, but still, some of the same Ghibli magic is there.