May 12, 2011: “Grave of the Fireflies”

May 12, 2011

I’ve never been a huge anime fan, but I try to stay open to film styles in general. I remember seeing “Spirited Away” (2001) in theaters and enjoyed it, so when I found consistent high ratings for “Grave of the Fireflies” (1988) I was intrigued.

The story is set place  in Japan, 1945, at the end of WWII. The main characters are Seita, a boy of about 12 years old and his sister, Setsuko who is about 3-4 years old. I’m not giving anything away by saying that the whole film is a series of events before the two children’s death, as Seita’s first words recount that this is the night he died and with Setsuko’s absence, her death is implied as well. So, I want to be upfront and say that “Grave of the Fireflies” is not the most “cheery” film out there, but rather, is a poignant study of effects of war on innocents and the nobility of humans struggling under hard conditions.

The city of Kobe, where Seita and Setsuko live, is firebombed and they lose their mother. Their father is absent serving in the military, so they are sent to their aunt’s house in Nishinomiya. The unsympathetic aunt plays a kind of subtle wicked stepmother who resents the added burden of the extra kids in a time of shortages of war. Seita picks up on this, and has the idea of moving he and his sister to a nearby shelter in the woods. At first, this is a kind of an adventure which gives the children freedom to explore  life in kind of Tom Sawyer way. They have time to establish themselves, experience nature and reminisce about the better times of their life. They find  a nearby field full of  fireflies that they capture to fill their shelter with their light. The next day, as Setsuko is burying the dead fireflies, Seita finds out that the aunt has told Setsuko that their mother is dead (something Seita desperately wanted to spare Setsuko.) Eventually, conditions decay. Despite Seita’s best efforts, Setsuko is wasting away from malnutrition and soon she dies.

Despite this rather morose setup, “Grave of the Fireflies” is, surprisingly, a film about the beauty of those simple moments of life that we all take for granted: playing on the beach, the sour taste of  pickled plum, chasing butterflies, the playfulness of our children, the sweet taste of fruit drops, the memories that fill our life…and if you’ve ever spent a night in a field of fireflies you understand the magic of nature. All this, and more, is packed into “Grave of the Fireflies” while not ignoring the sadness inherent in life.

“Grave of the Fireflies” is not quite a perfect film. Viewers will find at least one major logic flaw that momentarily  detracts from the story line, but what the film lacks in logic, it makes up for in heart. One comment that I have read over and over is that “Grave of the Fireflies” is one of those films that sits with the viewer for some time after. It is based on the novel by Akiyuki Nosaka who, during the war, lost his younger sister to malnutrition in a similar way that Seita loses Setsuko. The novel was Nosaka’s way to come to terms with this.

I’ve always considered that fireflies were (at least partial)  inspiration to the plethora of Edwardian faery stories. Certainly, any creature that manufactures its own light to shine as a beacon, as it flies through the night air, is envocative of many things to the human imagination: magical spirits, ghosts, the soul, etc. As she is burying the fireflies, Setsuko asks Seita “Why do all the fireflies die so soon?” A very human question indeed…but, of course, we are all fireflies.


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