I’d long heard that this movie was a punch in the gut, and it certainly lived up to its reputation. Director Isao Takahata is a co-founder of Studio Ghibli, along with Hiyao Miyazaki, and Grave of the Fireflies is utterly unique amongst the Studio Ghibli films I’ve seen. It’s an adaptation of a novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, which Wikipedia says was “intended as a personal apology to the author’s own sister who died from malnutrition during the Second World War.” It’s set in Japan in the final days of WWII, and it follows two children as they try to survive the fire-bombing of their home city of Kobe. The first line of the film, which is narrated by the boy, Seito, is “September 21, 1945… that was the night I died.” This sets the tone of the film.
On the surface, the narrative is pretty simple and straightforward. It’s a depiction of the privations the two children face, and the simple pleasures they are able to grasp even as they suffer. But as with Miyazaki’s films of this era (My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service) the simplicity is carefully structured to pack a powerful punch. The subject-matter of Grave of the Fireflies — suffering children — is almost unbearably powerful in its own right, but what impressed me on a structural level is the way that Takahata opens the film with that first knock-out blow and then ends it at a point that leaves a gap between the last thing we see and the first thing we see. That gap is charged with so much pain and loss it took hours for it to really sink in. (Other people in the theater felt it immediately, and there was open weeping around me as the credits rolled.)
The other thing that makes the film extraordinarily powerful is that it doesn’t depict the children as purely innocent. Wikipedia says that Takahata “had intended to convey an image of the brother and sister living a failed life due to isolation from society.” This is exactly what comes across. The adults in the children’s life fail them, but the failure is completely understandable under the circumstances. The boy, who is an adolescent, makes bad decisions, and they seem utterly realistic and normal. The girl, who is four, is both a sweet little angel and a total pain in the ass who is completely dependent on others, as four-year-olds are. We get glimpses of other people who have survived the war in better shape, but it feels like pure luck. The social net has fallen completely apart, and unfortunate individuals are exposed to dangers that society would typically buffer them from.
One of the strange aspects of the film’s history is that it was released as a double-bill with Miyazaki’s Totoro. I didn’t realize this as I was watching the film last night, but I did keep thinking of Totoro. Part of it was the depiction of the little girl, Setsuko, who is many ways reminiscent of Mei from Totoro. Part of it was the anxiety about losing your parents that hovers over both films. Part of it was the depiction of the simple joys of the Japanese countryside, with rice paddies and streams filled with creatures exotic in the eyes of city children. The two films make an interesting thematic pair, although I would never show Grave of the Fireflies to young children. Grave of the Fireflies is the dark shadow of Totoro, where the childhood anxieties about loss and death become realities, where the friendly spirits of protection fail in their task.
But another aspect of Grave of the Fireflies that makes it so powerful is its peculiarly Japanese sense of the transience of beauty, or the beauty of transience. There is at least one direct reference to cherry blossoms, which is the traditional Japanese image of this concept, but the fireflies of the title seem to be another image of transience. Even under the terrifying conditions in which they briefly live, the children find beauty and joy and love. The children themselves become like cherry blossoms, whose beauty is to be cherished because it lasts for such a short time. Takahata finds their spirits still inhabiting the countryside around Kobe. His film creates a great tension between the horrific and the hallowed.