Grave of Fireflies, or ‘Hotaru no haka’ in Japanese, is a powerful and compelling animated film which was released in 1988 (Ebert). This 88 minutes long film was directed by Isao Takahata with the animation being done by Studio Ghibli, which has created a name for itself for producing quality and acclaimed animations. The movie’s story line is modeled on a novel bearing the same title, written in 1967 by Akiyuki Nosaka. Apparently, the author had undergone an experience comparable to that of Seita, the protagonist in both the film and the autobiography.
Grave of Fireflies has a growing audience of admirers among children and adults alike. Cavallaro asserts that this wartime story evokes profound sympathy and other powerful emotions in viewers (The Anime Art of Hayao 68). Many people who have watched it have reported shedding tears at some point. Since its release, the film has continued to receive positive reviews from the finest of movie critics. While many perceive it as an indictment of war, there are those who feel that the Japanese character and tenacity in terms of war are sharply brought into focus in the film.
This critical analysis of Grave of Fireflies comprises an introduction, synopsis of the story, animation, thematic concerns and a conclusion. It will reveal than this film is more about the devastating personal and societal effects of war than the war itself.
This animated film is set in Kobe City, Japan, towards the culmination of World War II. Grave of the Fireflies is a tragic story that captures the hapless and hopeless attempt by two siblings to survive the horrors of the war in which America and Japan are flexing military muscle (Rose). The movie begins 21st September 1945. Initial images depict the situation at the Sannomiya Station where a number of dead bodies lie. Most significantly, a young boy struggles and eventually succumbs to starvation. One of the janitors at the station informs the other of the demise in a casual manner that implies powerlessness and apathy among Japanese people.
The janitor callously ransacks the body of the boy and comes across a candy tin. He hurls the can into an open field. It is from this tin that the spirit of one of the main characters (Sestuko – a little girl) emerges and is joined by that of the dead boy, Seita (Sestuko’s brother). In addition, the spirits are joined by countless fireflies which make one reflect on the title of the animated film. From this point, the spirit of Seita takes over and narrates the entire story in retrospect (Napier 219). From history, the events depicted in this film took place in March 1945 when Allied forces firebombed Kobe City.
Apparently, the residents of the city are expecting an American attack and have prepared bomb shelters to shield themselves. As American bomber planes fly overhead, Seita and Sestuko try to secure their property with the intention of getting into a bomb shelter later. Their mother leaves for the refuge earlier because she has a heart disorder. Unfortunately, the children do not make it to the shelter in time. The planes drop napalm bombs which explode on reaching the ground. The children try to get outside only to be caught up in huge fires and confused mobs attempting to escape the deadly impact (Ebert).
Seita and Sestuko escape the fires unscathed. Later, they return to the gathering point for their neighborhood where they find their mother who has sustained serious burns. Shortly after, their mother succumbs to the burns. Unfortunately, they cannot reach their father who is a soldier, out in the battlefront. The children are therefore left without any parent to shield them from the devastating events occurring in their locality (Rose).
As fate would have it, the siblings opt to move in with one of their relatives. This decision later proves to be their undoing because their distant aunt later turns into a tormentor. At first, she makes the teenager to search for his late mother’s Kimonos which he sells to buy rice. Moreover, the boy returns to his former home to collect food items which he had hidden prior to the bombing. The only item which Seita spares is a tin of Sakuma Fruit Drops, which becomes iconic in the entire narrative. However, as the situation worsens and food becomes scarce, conflicts begin. The aunt accuses the siblings of idling and not doing enough to earn the food they eat (Napier 220).
Eventually, Seita and Sestuko cannot endure the conflict anymore and have to move out to search for alternative sustenance. The children create a new abode in a deserted bomb shelter. For light, they have to use fireflies. Their situation is aggravated when the fireflies die on the following day. As she buries them, Sestuko reflects on the death of her mother as well as that of the insects which had served them so well the previous night (Napier 221).
The coming days bring more dire experiences (Rose). The children run out of food. The teenager is forced to steal from homes during bombings and also from farmers. He is desperate to feed his sister whose health is deteriorating. Eventually, Seita is caught stealing and is given a painful beating and taken to the authorities. When he gets his freedom back he takes his sister to the doctor only to be informed that the young girl is malnourished. As a last resort, he visits the bank and withdraws his late mother’s savings. It is at this point that the news of Japanese surrender to Allied forces starts seeping in. Even worse, the boy learns that his father may have died in the war just like the majority of Japanese Navy servicemen.
The final blow to the escalating desperation of the young boy is when he returns to the cave to find his sister hallucinating and at the point of death. His attempts to prepare a meal for the little one do not suffice because the girl dies. Seita cremates his sister’s and puts the ashes in the Sakuma Fruit Drops tin. This tin, together with a photograph of his father, are the items which Seita is seen holding when he finally dies at the Sannomiya Station after a few weeks.
As the film concludes, viewers watch as Seita and Sestuko’s spirits gather in apparent tranquility and joy. The children in this scene are immaculately dressed, in good health and encircled by fireflies. They are also depicted watching over present-day Kobe City. Apparently, this is the ideal state of a life devoid of war.
Animation in Grave of Fireflies
Grave of Fireflies is irresistible yet unforgettable because of the powerful emotions it elicits through innovative strategies (Ebert). Generally, animated films are perceived to be shallow and only meant for children. The most recognizable genres of animation are cartoons. These variants of animation sometimes elicit interest in adults. However, it is rare for an animated film to move the audience to tears. Grave of Fireflies changes all that. In addition to evoking tears, it does not shy away from creating a measure of grief. This is a potent dramatic animation of a historical event that brought untold harm to the protagonists and the angst is felt through the animated movie.
It is obvious that the animated film has greater effect than the autobiography format of the same narrative (Ebert). Under normal circumstances, most producers would have opted for an action movie to dramatize the war story. However, this would have necessitated an admixture of violence, action, special effects and accentuation of war to capture the essence of the narrative. However, animation makes the story more acquiescent to the mind of the viewer. The restrictions normally associated with real actors are missing. It becomes easier to visualize the events based on one’s perception of pertinent history or reality.
The idea of realistic animation is a near-impossibility. Of course, it would not be sensible to expect sketched or caricatured people to appear as authentic as those in real movies. This explains the general perception of cartoons and other animations as being symbolic. Every aspect of animation is exaggerated in order to accentuate the dual aspects of this mode – entertainment and didactic motives. Grave of Fireflies characters and their movements are so well developed and synchronized that one appears to be watching a real movie. For this reason, Cavallaro observes that this movie deviates from the rationale and practice of typical animated films (Anime and the Art of Adaptation 30).
Another aspect of the animation which captures the imagination and creative sensibilities of the audience is the beauty of Grave of Fireflies. The creators of this film have managed to forge a beautiful landscape – better than one would expect in cartoons. The images of people and the surroundings in the city of Kobe appear real. Consider the body features of the children and the emotional effects they elicit and you will realize that animation can indeed be developed to the point of having the same or even better effects than normal cinema (Napier 220). The creator of this film sympathizes with the children for losing their innocence and joy because of the war.
There is also a considerable amount of palpable patience in this film. The director appears not to be in a hurry (Ebert). He pauses for a considerable amount of time for the viewer to imbibe the images sufficiently. Characters are captured in their moments of action, confusion, thought and withdrawal. At the onset of the film, one is able to fathom the juvenile nature of Seita. The teenager is so befuddled by the bombs and their immediate impact that he runs about aimlessly, with the sister on his back, when the two should be sheltering. In essence, the focus is on the actions elicited by the war.
Many critics believe that Grave of the Fireflies is about war. It is believed that both the semi-autobiography and the animated film are anti-war in nature. This is understandable considering the setting of the film is the city of Kobe at the end of the Second World War. There are a number of reminders of the war and its aftermath. For example the American bombers rain havoc from the sky leaving behind a trail of fires, death, destruction of property and widespread poverty (Napier 220).
The dominant theme in the film, however, is personal and societal suffering in war situations as opposed to supremacy battles between two powerful forces. While it is true that Americans and Japanese armies are at war, the only time Americans are active is when the bombs start raining on Kobe City. There is no actual combat in the film. There is no glorification of one army over the other in Grave of the Fireflies. Poor Japanese people are portrayed as powerless innocent victims (Napier 219). The government appears to abdicate its primary role of protecting its citizens. Consequently, people die of starvation, wounds and other debilitating effects of the war.
Essentially, the film delves into the effects and impacts of war more than it does the war itself. The focus is shifted from the antagonists on both sides to the suffering occasioned to the average citizen on the street. This film also seems to covertly question the underlying reason for Japan to remain in the war when it is apparent that its citizens are undergoing untold affliction and death. The children end up dead like fireflies, which are simply collateral damage for a course they know nothing about.
Cavallaro further notes that Grave of the Fireflies is about survival (Anime and the Art of Adaptation 27). For Seita and Sestuka, war means the loss of their parents and the concomitant need to fend for themselves. When the two children move in with a distant aunt, the motivation is to endure through the war. Seita’s forays into their previous abode are motivated by the desire to live through the war and begin a new life. When their desire to live is no longer tenable at their relative’s abode, the two children wander into an abandoned bomb shelter hoping to find solace and better prospects. Their survival is jeopardized by lack of food and the teenager resorts to stealing. In the end, they siblings do not survive but the film is testimony to their tenacity against formidable forces.
Grave of the Fireflies also delves into the beauty and innocence of childhood (Rose). Amidst all the tragedy and grief, one cannot help but shed a joyful tear when the children capture fireflies and use them as light in the cave. With juvenile innocence, the young girl buries the dead insects as she enacts the burial of her mother, which she only imagines. Sestuka at one time also pretends to prepare dinner for Seita through utilization of mud. This is pure innocence and tranquility for a child who is oblivious of the tragedy that engulfs the rest of the city.
Grave of the Fireflies is more than an animated film based on a war situation. While it evokes memory of the devastation and death visited on Japan during the Second World War, it captures the suffering experienced by innocent civilians in war situations. In addition, unlike other animated films which shy away from capturing reality, this film delves into the very depths of grief and despair. This is accomplished through near-real animations which take the reader slowly and sequentially through the entire narrative. After watching this film, even if one does not shed tears, it is impossible not to rethink the idea and impacts of war.
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