Grave of the Fireflies is a war film unlike many others. In a market flooded by gritty and bloodstained dramas it presents a painfully realistic story of the civilians of post war Japan. The slow demise of the main characters is made clear from the very start. We are given no option to be hopeful for their survival against the odds. This is not a tale of a band of soldiers making their way though no-mans land, there is no everyman turned hero and no safe zone for them to reach or mission to fulfil. Under the name of Studio Ghibli a studio associate with films about childhood and fantasy, Isao Takahata illustrates the reality of what war dose to a nation itself. Tragedy goes beyond the battlefields. It leaves a nation with mentalities that are skewed by what the government and society that incubated the war. From the beginning we are robbed from any delusion that this will be a traditional war story of overcoming the odds; we start with the beginning, Our young protagonist, Seita, dying as a unknown wraith in a train station. The rest of the film is the tale of how this came to be.
A common thread throughout the film are the choices and attitudes that the Japanese fostered during the war and just how firmly they endured despite the environment crumbling under them, the characters are painfully comfortable with their day to day hardships and yet keep pushing forward, maintaining what they have been taught to do for years even as it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the life style. Within the first act of the film or child protagonists have had their lives turned upside down. Their mother has perished after being horrifically wounded in a fire bombing that has also destroyed their home. In this world that war creates it is wistful to imagine society banding together to overcome the situation, to create a community that supports one another. However, Japan has a history of having a deep seeded attitude of self-maintenance and personal values. This was increased tenfold during the latter years of the war and post war years. This approach became unforgiving during this time, a life was determined by what they could contribute to society. When our protagonists Seita and Setsuko move in with their paternal aunt it’s made clear that these attitudes existed even in families.
Blended families where a means of creating financial stability, the more people in the household earning a wage or contributing in some way the greater chance of survival and comfort. However, the more uncomfortable flipside of this is; what happens when people exhaust their ‘use’ or are perceived as not pulling their weight? From the very beginning their aunt’s attitude has something amiss, a lack of empathy and compassion for the young children now in her care. Her initial treatment is accommodating albeit begrudgingly. Cracks begin to appear in time as the rations and economic situation begins to decline. This can be traced back to the perception of the belief a persons ‘use’ in society and function in serving the nation. She openly chastises Seita for not working or attending school, ignoring the fact that both his school and the steel factory he had been working in have been destroyed in a bombing raid. As we can see children where not exempt from the notion of servitude and upholding the national values. This is visible in the real life data that show that Japanese school children of this time received increased physical training lessons being added to curriculum including being taught on how to use bamboo spears as well as lessons on wilderness survival and military drills. All of which are subtly demonstrated by Seita who easily can create a fire, camp site and takes pride in his ability to perform well in sports. By the time our story takes place, children as young as 15 where subject to conscription in the army and expected to be able to handle make shift weapons as Japan became terrified of the prospect of foreign invasion. During the battle of Okinawa the Imperial army mobilised a whole division of children (14-17) to serve. Furthermore, the willingness to serve was apparent and encouraged, children as young as 17 where documented as volunteering as Kamikaze pilots and children of soldiers where taught to uphold the families honour and follow in their footsteps.
It’s uncomfortable to watch the adults ultimately failing
our protagonists, whether it be for reasons of stigma or more legitimate
reasons of being genuinely powerless to do anything to help Seita and his
sister. The opening scene alone introduces a reality of post war Japan, that
is, the disregard or callous treatment of war orphans and the homeless. The
janitor who discovers Seita’s body has no outward sorrow or empathy, he and his
college are just going through the motions of their job. Equally the on lookers
seem disgusted with the homeless taking shelter in the station. One on looker
stating that the children will ‘make them look bad when the American’s arrive.’
And the janitor himself unsympathetically prodding Seita with a pole to check
if he was alive. In reality it war orphans did gather an unfortunate stigma.
They would resort to crime to survive. Stealing in a time of scarcity was
obviously seen as unforgivable and they were vilified. The police and public
began to refer to them in a derogatory term “furōji”. Many where jailed and
swept away from society as if they were nothing more than pests. As was the
case in Tokyo, where in 1946 over 400 children mostly between the ages of 7-10
where thrown in cells and detained. With this tension growing between himself
and his aunt Seita makes the choice to leave the family home with his sister to
take care of themselves with the help of the money their mother has left in the
bank. When he buys supplies for moving out, he is warned by multiple adults to
return to his aunt, however they fall on death ears. Intriguingly there is
little more than a gentle nudge of advice, no plea or encouragement. They let
the children slip though their fingers with little conviction. Even their aunt
is not remorseful or self-evaluating when they leave her care. She lets them
go, arguably sealing their fate. He has put himself under the scrutiny of one
of the homeless masses, moving his status from the house guest with expectations
to a orphan who has little prospect or substance to offer the world.
But how dose our teenage protagonists mindset and choices plot the inevitable tragedy? Seita is most definitely a product of his time fuelled further by a common teenage hard-headedness. Firstly, the choice he makes to leave his aunts household with his sister to live by their own means is debatably a terribly misguided one. Some viewers are quick to criticise his motives as naive and ignorant, blaming him for the ultimate demise. However, this ignores the sheer weight of the social norms and influences that was pushed upon the Japanese youth at the time. Seita feels the obligation to be caretaker of his sister after the loss of his mother and prior he was asked with the position of being the man of the house due to his father serving in the navy. His father’s rank is also important to consider. To the Japanese, soldiers where put on a pedestal. They were the selfless protectors of the people and the core values of the nation itself. Children of military men where expected to uphold no only a tradition of service but also to present themselves in an efficient and honourable manner so as to not to put shame on the serving member of their family. Indeed, he takes pride in the skills that he has been taught in school and other government incentivised activities. He puts so much faith in these skills and attributes that he becomes ignorant and defensive over the fact that they are not enough. His choice to move into a disused bomb shelter and live in the wilderness was not uncommon, many citizens resorted to this with similar faith that they only had to endure the living situation temporarily until the war was back in their favour. Here we have the main cause of tragedy, the misplaced faith and idolisation of what the state tells people in dire times. At every turn, every trail he maintains his faith that if he continues and endures the situation just awhile longer the nation will find its feet again. The blind fate that Japan will rise again in the war. Telling himself and his sister that any day now the troops will return. But we are not able to share this hope. The opening has left us without that comfort. We know that Seita and Setsuko are on a grim march to their deaths.
Japan delusion and blind faith was a deep set reality, leading many soldiers trying to sabotage the announcement of Japan’s surrender with an attempted coup d’etat. Moreover some had such strong denial in Japan’s loss that they committed suicide or continued to fight regardless to the surrender. Rouge soldiers are a anomaly that became infamous, hiding away only to emerge decades later. Such is the case of Hiroo Onoda; who only acknowledged defeat in 1974. Seita mirrors this denial when he hears two men at the bank discussing the surrender announcement. He becomes desperate and quizzical, baffled that the imperial army could be defeated. All at once his whole understanding of the world is shaken. Like so many other civilians he had been misinformed of Japan’s position in the war and the fate of the military. What has he to invest faith in now? What is their future if everything he believed in is gone? His father will not return and he nation’s fate is at the mercy of the allied forces. He returns to his sister with all of the things he had previously denied weighing heavily on him. They are truly in to deep and only now, as he desperately tries to pool the last of his resources for food and amenities, he surrender his unshakeable faith.
So what does Grave of the Fireflies tell us about the Japanese experience post world war II? How does it want us to reflect on what we have observed? Its best looked at from the perspective of those who worked on the film and those who inspired it. The story itself is based on a short story that is a semi-autobiographical account of Akiyuki Nosaka. He lived through the period as a teenage orphan, caring for his sibling. Seita is his own parallel and unfortunately, his sister also died of malnutrition under his care. Although he survived the war he felt responsible. He understood how his choices and mindset where mislead. His grief was so great he endeavours to have his stand in of Seita die in the story, believing he should have shared the fate. Alas even in spite of this Nosaka was not preaching an anti-war message. It presents us with a stark reality, yes. But we are not cautioned or left with the message that there is a grander meaning to the losses. Two children die tragically, like so many during post war life. Grave of the Fireflies dose not tell us to blame a singular source, we are not given a villain or any precise reason for the events. What we are given is a portrait of a casualty of war felt at home and each viewer is invited to reflect on that. To come to a realisation that the situation is never so black and white as we may want to think. When the Japanese people, where making these choices they were simply doing what they could to survive. Everyone in the film is trying to survive. Even the aunt, even the farmer who can no longer sell the children food, even the overwhelmed doctor who cannot help them. They are not villains. They are people pushed into a harsh unforgiving environment. The final scene of the film is that of Seita and Setsuko looking down on a modern-day Kobe (Their home city) Silently. This is where we are left. To think of the individuals lost in war yet are unknown and nameless to the masses, it is up to us to asses what the loss and experience means. From that we lean and develop our empathy and understanding of the lives of the people. That at its core is what the intention of the film is; to invite us to think about a part of history which is often bypassed without the simple resolution of a clear cut solution to the problem directly shown to us.