When you mention Grave of the Fireflies to someone who’s seen it, they give you a rueful grin. “Saddest movie ever,” they say, or something like that.
I’ve seen Grave of the Fireflies three times: most recently in advance of a screening happening at TIFF Bell Lightbox, here in Toronto, next month. I don’t know if I’ll be attending that screening or not, but I did want to write about it, to help promote the film, and hopefully entice you, if you haven’t seen Grave of the Fireflies, to go. Because sometimes, it’s good to be sad. And when it comes to being good, and very, very sad, Grave of the Fireflies is nearly unparalleled.
Set in 1945, the film tells the story of two Japanese children, 14-year-old Seita, and his four-year-old sister, Setsuko. They are residents of Kobe, a Japanese city firebombed by American planes near the end of World War Two. We witness this firebombing shortly after the movie begins. As Seita and Setsuko and hundreds of others look skyward, a cluster of B-29 Superfortress bombers spew forth their payload: an almost pestilential raining-down of bits of flaming oily substance that land on the ground and spread their fires. The city is consumed. The childrens’ mother, we soon learn, is burned in the attack—she dies soon after. Their father is on a battleship, somewhere in the Pacific. He may be dead too. Seita and Setsuko have no one but each other.
It is an ugly start. Grave of the Fireflies’ writer and director, Isao Takahata, has rejected claims that his film is anti-war, and it’s true that no argument is made for pacifism in the film. But by portraying the plight of those impacted by war with such realism and sensitivity, he nevertheless challenges the notion that destruction is a worthwhile means of resolving anything. We begin to care for these two orphans as we would any pair of decent young people faced with terrible loss.
It is the film’s capturing of essential childhood, particularly Setsuko’s, that makes this so easy. Conjured by Takahata and his artists, the children move as real, live children their age do. Watch how Setsuko removes her pants and top to follow her brother into the sea for a swim: It’s a fumbling movement by someone with short limbs and small hands, but it is not exaggerated—like most little kids, Setsuko is quite serious when it comes to mundane efforts. And she’s at home in her body in a way adults often aren’t, falling backwards on her bum to free herself from her pant legs. This is what a girl of four would do, anywhere in the world.
Setsuko is immature of course, but a fully realized, juvenile character. She is more than simply something Seita must protect. But she certainly does need his protection. That this responsibility falls to Seita, a boy only in his early-teens, is the catalyst for much of the heartbreak in the second half of the film.
I always ask myself what I would have done, at fourteen, in Seita’s place. It’s frightening to think about. Devoted to his sister but not yet old enough to be a dad to her, he first chooses shelter with his father’s sister, who lives with her daughter and a lodger in a village some distance away. Though the woman takes them in, she’s clearly not interested in taking care of them for long. Her cutting remarks about the advantages of being an officer’s son suggest a difficult relationship between herself and Seita’s father. She berates him for failing to contribute to the war effort as her daughter does, implying he’s a leach. He responds by using his parents’ savings to buy his own stove, and his own food. Eventually, he and Setsuko leave their aunt’s home for good, taking refuge in an abandoned shelter in the countryside with no running water or heat. This is where they’ll live, alone and unencumbered, at least through the summer.
It is a testament to the strength of the film’s storytelling that this doesn’t make Seita a villain. Taking his tiny sister to a hovel in the countryside in a time of food shortages—and continued bombings, and threats of lootings or worse—is infinitely stupid. But is it fair to expect better of Seita at his age? He has just lost his mother. His father, whom he looks up to as an example of strength, even carrying a crumpled photograph of the man around with him, has been gone for some time. In his parent’s absence it is up to Seita to provide and protect—to be a man, in other words—and this imperative is only reinforced when his aunt questions his resolve. It is only Seita’s pride which sends him and his sister into their exile. But, we understand, he is in over his head.
Grave of the Fireflies is not without its happy moments. Setsuko, in particular, has the carefree goofiness of a four-year-old. She loves her can of fruitdrops, for example, and her tantrums dissipate the minute she hears one of the pieces of candy rattling out of the tin and into her hands. But the candy runs out. And then Seita fills the can with water to make a sweet drink for her. These are the things you do when you have nothing. He begins to steal, then blatantly loot. Setsuko begins to wither.
Takahata reminds us that it doesn’t have to be like this. Not in a heavy-handed, ideological way, but with literal examples of Japanese society coping and rebuilding around them. Seita and Setsuko’s shelter actually isn’t that far from a nearby town. There are proper shelters in that town, plus doctors, retailers, and even functional banks. “You can’t survive outside the system,” an official tells Seita, partway through the movie. His advice to the boy is bland, almost bemused, which is typical of adults in the film. They are all war-weary. They have no energy left to help him. But they believe he could help himself.
The last 25 minutes of Grave of the Fireflies are the most gut-wrenching I’ve ever seen. Having watched the film a few times now, though, I'm reminded that its message is less about dying than about knowing when to give up. When to let go. It delivers this message many times, in many scenes, many of them early on.
Right now I’m thinking about the black rain. A result of the firebombing, it falls on Seita and Setsuko as they huddle on the outskirts of their ruined town. In the sky is the bomber that orphaned them, minutes before. The plane is symmetrical, gleaming, far out of reach. The children are squatting in the dirt, filthy and soaked. They’re frightened and lost. The plane is invincible.
And it’s headed home.
Where to see Grave of the Fireflies:
Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no haka) screens at TIFF Bell Lightbox on Friday, December 20, 2013, and Wednesday, January 1, 2014; part of Spirited Away: The Films of Studio Ghibli. Both screenings are in Japanese with English subtitles.