Grave of the fireflies: 30 years later 

- Oisín Walsh 

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Grave of The Fireflies is a film about two young siblings in Japan, 14 year old Seita and his 4 year old sister Setsuko, who struggle to survive during the last days of the Second World War after their home is bombed by the Allies. This Studio Ghibli production was directed by co-founder Isao Takahata (who passed away earlier this year) and was released as a double feature alongside Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro, a considerably softer film than Grave of the Fireflies. Due to the grim subject matter which Grave of the Fireflies deals with and the fact that Ghibli films were regularly targeted to young children, it was not a financial success. However, Totoro proved enough of a draw for the target audience that Studio Ghibli remained stable and continued to produce films for years to come. However, its lack of success was only due to its more mature tone. 30 years ago, Grave of the Fireflies demonstrated how animation can be used to tackle serious themes such as war and grief.

This is a war film without epic battles. There is no enemy to be fought. There is no heroic defeat. Perhaps it is not a war film at all, but it does have heros in Seita and Setsuko, who resist,  with all their might. Seita is acutely aware of the situation they find themselves in and strives to protect his young sister from the cruel reality, but she still feels the horror even if she does not entirely understand it. Grave of the Fireflies bears resemblance to a more recent war film, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk in that it doesn’t create a villain for the audience to boo and hiss at but it provides them with a non-descript threat that we hope our heroes can survive.

It is a testament both to the quality of the film and the sadness of our world that the film is still as relevant and impactful as it is. There is war and distress across the globe. Families are being torn apart and it is horrifically plausible that a story like Seita and Setsuko’s is taking place somewhere in the world today.

In some ways it is easy to show the bleak horror of the world. A film which depicts images of death and tragedy isn’t going to have any lasting impact unless we are given a clear context. It is also important that what it shows isn’t so graphic that we have to turn away in disgust. Grave of The Fireflies achieves this perfectly. We are given enough moments of humanity and happiness that we are kept engaged in the action. This film also dares to show not only the brutality which people are capable of but also the charity that exists in us too. The children’s aunt at first seems caring and compassionate as she shelters them after their mother dies but eventually she begins to treat them harshly. She begrudges them her charity as they do nothing to earn it as they make no contribution to the household or in Seita’s case, the war effort (reminder Seita is 14 and Setsuko is only 4). Her treatment of them is so poor they decide to take their possessions and live inside a sheltered cave. This leads to possibly the greatest moment in the film that will raise your spirits, Seita and Setsuko catch dozens of fireflies and release them inside their mosquito net to provide light inside their shelter. It’s magical and it is amazing to see the wonder that fills both of the children’s eyes as they revel in one of nature’s miracles. But this magical scene is brought to a grinding reality when we see Setsuko the next day, surrounded by all of the fireflies who have inevitably died. What I truly appreciate about the film is that it finds the time to recognise that even in the most distressing of times, people can be truly good and compassionate. When Seita is arrested for stealing crops in order to feed himself and his starving sister, the police officer doesn’t charge him. It’s a small gesture, particularly when pitted against the devastation that advances the plot of the film, but it’s there, a recognition that people can be good.

The goodness of humanity really shines in Seita and Setsuko who support one another. Their bond is clear and when you see the two of them enjoying their life and their innocence together, you will be happy and your heart will be full. Every time they restore their lives and our hopes are lifted, it is gone again in the blink of an eye. While I realise that this film is both a story well told and a film wonderfully animated, I have no wish to revisit it, I don’t think many will. No doubt the film’s most tragic moment is when Seita succeeds in getting the food Setsuko needs to survive, he arrives too late to save her but not too late to try. He offers her a watermelon slice, she slowly eats it and feebly thanks Seita. Seita leaves to prepare a meal but the camera rests on Setsuko lying down, holding on to a slice of watermelon before the narration confirms what we already suspect: “She never woke up.”  My heart was in pieces after watching this film. Grave of the Fireflies while at times beautiful and inspiring, is truly a tragedy to behold.

The saddest thing of all is that we cannot see a world where they find happiness. The most the audience can wish for, the last sliver of hope there is, is that this brother and sister are able to find safety and security and even happiness in a world beyond our own. They could never hold on to it here.  

I’m not claiming that Grave of The Fireflies is the greatest movie or even the greatest war movie of the past 30 years. Although, it is hard to think of a film that I don’t want to return to, not because it was poorly made or not entertaining, but because it was of a high enough standard that its effect is fully realised in a single viewing. 30 years on and beyond, this film will achieve this same effect, your heart will break for Seita and Setsuko. That effect should never change.