Isao Takahata‘s Hotaru no Haka (The Grave of the Fireflies, 1988) is a brilliant piece of cinema. Set in Kobe, Japan, in 1945, the film focuses on a brother and sister who are left orphaned and homeless by the American firebombing of the city. It is unflinching in its portrayal of the realities of the war, a harrowing account of what such attacks meant for the ordinary people living in the target area. The children’s innocence and love for each other is no defence against the trials they face: their suffering is very real, their story a classic tragedy. That The Grave of the Fireflies is animated rather than live-action does not distract from its power to move, to provoke thought, to draw tears from the eyes. It is a masterpiece.
An adaptation of Akiyuki Nosaka‘s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, The Grave of the Fireflies pulls none of the punches of the source. The novel is a guilt-ridden apology to Nosaka’s sisters, who died during World War II, as did Nosaka’s adoptive father. Survivor’s guilt and a sense of personal failure combine to make the book difficult to read on an emotional level, and the film, scripted by the director, keeps these themes, making it equally emotional viewing.
The main protagonists are Seita, a young teenager, and his much younger sister, Setsuko, who is around 5 years old. Their mother is killed during the firebombing of Kobe, and with their father away in the Japanese navy and their neighborhood destroyed, the children have to go to live with their aunt. However, the situation there quickly sours: the children feel their aunt is unfair as she gives them smaller portions of food than her own family gets, and sells their late mother’s kimonos; the aunt calls the children lazy and accuses them of not appreciating her or understanding the world. Her harsh words and his pride combine to make Seita want to leave, so he takes his little sister away from the aunt’s house to try to make it on their own.
The opening line, a child’s voice saying “September 21st, 1945… that was the night I died” sets the tone of the film, but it is the scene where Seita sees his mother burned beyond recognition that drives home the nature of the film. The camera stares at the burned body, forcing us to look at this casualty of war, forcing us to think about the boy seeing his mother this way. This is the reality of war in a single scene, an anti-war statement as powerful as any I’ve seen. In this moment, The Grave of the Fireflies stops being about children in Japan in the horrors of the summer of 1945, and becomes a film about every war, told from the point of view of innocents who cannot truly understand what they are seeing. From this moment on, the focus is on the quiet moments of life between the bombings, the struggle to survive, and the choices we make in times of difficulty. The film does not blame the Americans for the firebombings and the later even more devastating strikes at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nor does it blame the Japanese for attacking Pearl Harbor and provoking the response: its attention is on how individuals respond in wartime.
The Grave of the Fireflies is an anti-war film, and a film about pride, and guilt and struggle, but it is also a film about love. Seita loves his little sister, and he is her world. The driving force behind his actions is his desire to keep her happy, safe and healthy, but good intentions are not enough to guarantee success. If not for his pride and lack of understanding of the world, he might have seen more options. Setsuko trusts Seita absolutely, and is besides too young to make any choices for both of them. The signs of her love for him are the simple gestures of a small child. They would be cute and funny in any other situation, but they are heart-breaking in this one.
There is also great beauty in the film’s portrayal of nature. The camera lingers on the landscape, follows animals and insects, rests on flowers, contemplates clouds. The art for these scenes is exquisite. Fireflies play a role in a magical scene of comfort and joy, but also serve to remind us of the transience of life. In the scenes of Setsuko playing alone while her brother looks for food, the beauty is tinged with sadness: the joyful little girl, alone in the world, alone against the landscape, playing and waiting.
The Grave of the Fireflies is best watched with subtitles, not in the dubbed version. The subtitles are a more faithful translation of the script, whereas the dubbed version shifts the tone of some scenes, creating a subtly different film by leaving less open to interpretation. In particular, the tone of the conversations and arguments between Seita and his aunt is different. In the original and in the subtitles, there is room to see that both Seita and his aunt are contributing to the problems, but in the dubbed version, the aunt comes across as more unreasonable. Isao Takahata clearly wanted to leave room for the viewer to decide where blame should be laid.
Another reason to watch the film with the subtitles is to be able to hear the remarkable vocal performances of Tsutomu Tatsumi (Seita) and Ayano Shiraishi (Setsuko). The decision was made to cast actors of an age with their characters, despite the difficulty of the roles for such young children. Tatsumi’s emotional range is astonishing, given his youth, and then 5-year old Shiraishi is perfect.
Roger Ebert called it one of the greatest war films ever made; it has also been called one of the best animated films of all time, and one of the saddest films of all time. I will go further to say it is one of the best films of all time. Don’t deny yourself the experience of this incredible piece just because it is animated, foreign or subtitled; the only reason not to watch The Grave of the Fireflies is if you are not up to the emotional response it will surely evoke. A must-see for any serious cineaste.
Half a World Away: The Grave of the Fireflies by Derek Handley