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Film Review: Grave of the Fireflies
In 1988, Isao Takahata released Grave of the Fireflies, based on the 1967 semi-autobiographical short story of the same name by Akiyuki Nosaka. Starring Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi, Yoshiko Shinohara, Akemi Yamaguchi with Adam Gibbs, Emily Neves, Shelley Calene-Black, and March Bannor providing English voices, the film was a box office failure. It won the 1989 Blue Ribbon Awards Special Award and the 1994 Chicago International Children’s Film Festival Animation Jury Award and Rights of the Child Award. There were also two live-action remakes, one in 2005 from the perspective of the children’s cousin and in 2008, starring Reo Yoshitake and Rina Hatakeyama.
As Seita dies, he reunites with his sister Setsuko as a ghost and looks at the last few months of their lives, starting with the loss of their home and mother. The duo go through many challenges, including living with an aunt who continually scorns them and living an isolated life following their departure from said aunt.
A hauntingly beautiful and depressing film from Studio Ghibli¸ Grave of the Fireflies is an extraordinarily well done film. Though the director never intended it to be an anti-war film, it certainly comes off that way, in demonstrating that war rips families apart and tears them away from their homes and what they know and love. The very first scene exemplifies this with Seita and Setsuko’s hometown bombed, which kills their mother. And it really only gets more depressing from there, with the two receiving scorn from their aunt, eventually having to live alone and die.
But what the film really intended to show was how war changes people. It does this very well too, seeing how their aunt has no compassion for the pair. She constantly complains that Setsuko’s night terrors are keeping everyone awake and how Seita doesn’t help with anything and spends all his time with Setsuko. Similarly, a villager beats Seita to the point of what the army officer in charge calls abuse simply for stealing food in order to help him and Setsuko live. Even at the end, when Seita learns that Japan lost the war and the entire Navy was sunk, he starts asking questions about his father and not one person answers him in a kind manner. Instead, they just yell at him. It’s a great demonstration that war strips people of their humanity on the home front as well as the on the front lines.
That being said, Seita and Setsuko’s aunt does have somewhat of a point about there being a war on and everyone needing to pull their weight. She can be considered justified in complaining about Setsuko’s night terrors because everyone needs their sleep to have enough energy to work hard. Further, Seita was old enough to do some work, pull his own weight and help out with the effort, instead choosing to spend all his time with his sister. However, it’s certain that while the aunt did have a leg to stand on in that regard, she had no tact whatsoever, going so far as to calling them ungrateful little brats and annoying to their face and telling Setsuko that her mother was dead rather bluntly. This goes well with the theme of war changing people as the aunt was most likely tired and strained, having been pushed to her limits.
And even though Seita let his pride and ego get in the way of his social responsibility, it’s still very heartfelt to see him care so much for his little sister in a way that made the two inseparable. And he never let Setsuko linger on any depressing thoughts, rather choosing to make the war and all its evils far from her mind and have her focus on happiness, such as fireflies and the beach. He even sustains severe beatings just so Setsuko can have enough to eat.
Then there’s the end. While the duo’s death is a foregone conclusion, seeing as Seita died in the film’s opening, their undying loyalty towards each other is seen in how they are still together even in death. The two watch over 1980s Kobe near the spot where they lived alone. It makes for a wonderful ending, showing that they while they both died separately, death could only temporarily separate them as well as the implication that the two saw their beloved city rise from the ashes and become even greater than it once was.
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