Grave of the Fireflies

Friday, May 15, 2009

The horrors of war aren’t restricted to the battlefield. They also spread to the cities and the towns. This is what Grave of the Fireflies captures so masterfully. It paints the story of an ordinary family in Kobe during the end of the Second World War. One day some American bombers attack and the residents predict it’s going to be a heavy bombing. No one though realises just how bad it’s going to be.

The Americans firebomb the city and end up destroying a large portion of it. Much worse than this, however, is the human cost. Many people end up dying. One of the casualties is the mother of a young boy and his little sister. All of a sudden their relatively safe world has been ripped to shreds.

Even though this is an animation, we’re not spared the horrible effects of the attack. The mother of the children, who survives briefly after the bombing before succumbing to her wounds, lies in a makeshift hospital, her broken body a bloody mess. Bandages cover every inch of charred skin and blood soaks through the gauze. She no longer looks human.

The young boy, Seita, tries to protect his little sister, Setsuko, from this tragedy. He tells her that their mother is recovering in hospital. But the truth can’t be contained forever and their heartless aunt, who they go to live with (their father is fighting in the war and is likely dead himself), eventually tells the little girl the truth.

I think it was a superb idea to make this story as an animation. Had it been filmed with actors there would have been a very real possibility that the child actors would have tried too hard and would have ended up being annoyingly precocious. However, here, even though the character animation is certainly on the very cute side, there’s a wonderful believability to the sibling relationship. Gone is the potential problem of two child actors trying to show off and score points. You can just concentrate on the characters.

And it’s the relationship between the two central characters that makes Grave of the Fireflies such a strong film. Here you have two innocent people thrust into a horrific situation. But rather than allowing their circumstances to corrupt them, the characters exemplify everything that is good about humankind. The siblings here look after one another and do everything they can to make their lives better.

The boy, in particular, is a shining example of decency. His sister is terribly young, and it becomes his duty to look after her. So he becomes her parents – he’s both mother and father. He has to feed her, he has to entertain her and he has to protect her.

In one scene, Seita takes his little sister to the beach. For a few moments they’re able to experience a happy diversion. They’re able to experience some form of normalcy. But then they find a body and we then have a flashback to happier times when their mother was the one to take them to the beach. As hard as they try, things will never be the same again.

While Seita is an excellent example of decency and integrity, the siblings’ aunt is the opposite. She’s cold and unsympathetic when she’s told that their mother has died and she even gets them to sell their mother’s kimonos in order to raise funds for food. And then if it’s not bad enough that she makes the little girl cry by getting rid of her mother’s clothes (the only possessions of hers that they have and the only physical connection to their mum), she begins taking their food away. Her rationale is that while they’re in her house, she can do whatever the hell she pleases. And then she criticises their war efforts. The aunt certainly represents everything that is bad about humanity – our pettiness and our inability to see past our blinkers.

Unable to take their aunt any longer, the brother and sister leave. They go and live in a disused shelter. And at first life is rather idyllic. In one beautiful scene, fireflies illuminate their squalid living quarters. For a brief moment it looks like they’re floating in space. They’re removed from the harsh realities of real life and can enjoy the beauty of this moment. But then the girl asks why fireflies have to die so soon and they’re reminded of their mortality. Everyone is fated to burn brightly for a short length of time and then fade into oblivion.

Unfortunately the two characters in the film are destined to shine for a shorter length of time than most. Unable to find enough food to eat, the girl eventually starves to death. And the scene where she finally succumbs is incredibly sad. In her delirium she makes some rice balls out of dirt and offers them to her brother, who has finally returned with food. But it’s too late. Despite his best efforts, he fails to protect her.

And Seita’s fate is even sadder than that of the little girl’s. Unable to deal with her death, he withers away and eventually dies himself. His only possession is a chocolate tin that contains his sister’s ashes.

One of the surprising things about Grave of the Fireflies is that this (the death of Seita) is the film’s beginning. We hear him whisper his sister’s name and then he drops down dead. Some men then coldly throw away the tin that he clutches, thinking that its rubbish. But the spirits of the two characters emerge and passively watch events unfolding. From the very beginning the film sets up the sombre tone and it also establishes the inevitability of the characters’ demise. You get to witness their brief, last flash of life.

The end of the film sees the two characters looking over the rebuilt Kobe. You can rejoice at the way that the country recovered and re-established itself, but the human cost was terrible.

You Might Also Like


  1. Amazing review. Very well written and captured the essence of the movie. Just add a spoiler warning in the beginning