Please stay home with me.
Everything I read and heard about Isao Takahata‘s Hotaru no haka [Grave of the Fireflies] appeared to want to prepare me for a solemnly tragic tale that couldn’t be completed without tears streaming down my face. I took this train of thought as a badge of honor—preparing its emotionality and authenticity towards WWII’s futility and collateral damage. This is the reaction most war films hope to conjure with many going out of their way to manipulate the reception via story, score, or imagery. Reducing this specific cinematic masterpiece down into those terms, however, does it a disservice because the work doesn’t overtly seek such a response. Takahata isn’t interested in tugging heartstrings as much as depicting the honest truth of love, regret, and the frailty of youth.
Adapted from Akiyuki Nosaka‘s semi-autobiographical short story from 1967, Takahata lays everything out in his opening progression of scenes. The first phrase uttered is an ominous one: “September 21, 1945 … that was the night I died.” It’s spoken by teen Seita (Tsutomu Tatsumi), a boy seemingly lost in the melancholic expanse of isolation who’s healthy and walking one second, sullied and malnourished on the floor the next. We’re witnessing his physical end simultaneously with his spiritual continuance, an old and faded tin of fruit candies serving the role of artifact able to transport us into the past to see what led to this moment. His little sister Setsuko (Ayano Shiraishi) appears to take hold of the container and we’re back in their village, air raid siren wailing.
The simple fact that Seita is alone prepares us for what’s to come—namely a tragic progression of death and destruction. What it can’t assume, however, is the fun had within that sorrow. Both he and Setsuko might be struggling to stay alive against countless bombings by Allied forces and dwindling rations, but they are still kids and as such still prone to finding enjoyment via imagination, play, and distraction. They move from their own home with their mother (Yoshiko Shinohara) to that of their aunt (Akemi Yamaguchi) before eventually taking up residence in an abandoned cave offering protection from the raids. We watch as their comfortable way of life (they are children of a military father off to fight with the navy) shifts to malnourishment and theft.
Their age allows for selfishness as they move towards self-sufficiency, the kind that gets them into trouble stubbornness often refuses to alleviate. There’s unparalleled sincerity to this because Takahata and Nosaka aren’t worried about “story” as far as creating tension and conflict that wouldn’t already exist due to nothing more than their age. The film doesn’t need to create false instances of heroism or cowardice because the desperation behind every scene would overpower such artificial ploys anyway. Instead these characters merely live under duress and act in accordance to their harrowing circumstances and minimal abilities within. Mistakes are made often—especially those that only reveal themselves to be mistakes when it’s too late to go back. They act for each other, barely surviving on the edge of oblivion.
We as viewers must reconcile the sight of Setsuko giggling with her doll at the start against her sullen eyes and rash-filled back at the end. We judge the pair’s actions and think about what they could have done to stay healthier only to remember the pain and suffering that drove them onto a different path. War takes more than it gives—especially from the losing side as Japan inevitably proves by film’s end. It takes family and friends, our humanity, and the promise of a better future (if only because defeat masks the greatness of what can be accomplished when out from under the previous regime’s grip). This is why many treat Grave of the Fireflies as an anti-war film despite Takahata’s blanket rejection of the term.
And that’s okay. He didn’t have to set out to make an anti-war film to make one—interpretation of art is in the eye of the beholder. Combine the themes and events onscreen with our western vision of WWII from a place of victory and it’s easy to project an over-arching notion of punishment wherein the children suffer most. What was an effective maneuver by Allied forces to earn surrender erased an unconscionable number of innocent souls from this earth. But what could have happened if more children joined the fight? If Seita did his part for the nation instead of worrying only about himself and Setsuko, would their fates be changed? There are a ton of “what ifs,” but each one forgets the film’s true purpose.
War is but a backdrop for its depiction of sibling love. It’s the environment that pushes Seita and Setsuko to the edge of a cliff, forcing them to act or react in the moment. This is in turn why the film is so sad, but not necessarily tear-jerking. The filmmakers don’t push these characters into a corner, life does. They don’t create high-tension scenarios for sacrificial acts of melodramatic bravery because sacrifice is all they have. Instead of piling on the pain for these kids to fight, the story gradually removes resources and lets them respond. So there isn’t a “fix.” This isn’t an invasion Seita can pick up a gun and fight. Setsuko isn’t going to rise above her youth to find a solution to their poverty.
They’re simply going to be kids within a situation they are ill suited to combat. They’re going to run for their lives as fire falls from the sky, let death scare them into silence as a means to selfishly protect themself more than the other, and appreciate the small little wonders of life that remain in such a chaotic state. No one is going to tell them that it’s childish to trap a bucket of fireflies to release under their mosquito net for the pure wonder of a light show conjuring beauty rather than ruin. No one is going to remind them that there are bigger things happening because none of it matters to a teenage boy and his little sister barely scraping by. They’re all they have.
Takahata provides them that honesty. He lets them exist in dire circumstances and eventually fall naturally. He lets their lives take their course because any forced drama would only belittle their memory. We’re to remember them as shining beacons of innocence striving to protect each other against a world too clouded by rage to see the cost of its actions. We’re to absorb the unbridled light of humanity within them, to appreciate the joy of something as innocuous as a hard candy within a vacuum of sorrow. There’s strength in this tale that proves more impactful than a gun or bomb could ever possess. Their end may be tragic, but it also holds a sense of unwavering hope. War destroyed their bodies, but not their souls.