Yet again this is another war movie. But unlike so many American blockbusters that treat brave soldiers as heroes (such as Pearl Harbor, We were soldiers, Windtalkers, etc.), this one addresses war’s brutal impact on innocent civilians, especially children. With the war on Iraq now undergoing, this point has all the more relevance. Under the same American bombing, innocent Iraqi children are now suffering just as much as Seita and Setsuko in this movie have suffered, and even more, for the Iraqi people and land have long known the horrors of poverty, hunger and dictatorship.
This essay, with at the beginning a brief summary and an elaboration of three classic scenes in the movie, is going to present to you the three dimensions of the complex feelings that the movie provokes in my heart on a personal level and thus tries to offer an individual yet hopefully worthy viewpoint for those interested in the movie.
Summary and Three classic scenes
Grave of the Fireflies is based on a semi-autobiographical book by Nosaka Akiyuki about the death of his sister, and is a very well known book in Japan. The movie itself is about a teenager boy named Seita and his 5-year-old sister Setsuko, and how they try to survive in mainland Japan after the entirety of their port town, Kobe, is destroyed by American fire bombings. Their mother dies shortly after the fires are put out, in a graphic and poignant scene at a community hospital. Their father is in the Navy, and unbeknownst to them, has already died in battle. Unable to tell Setsuko that their mother has died, Seita takes her with him to live with their Aunt. The Aunt, however, cares little for them, and barely feeds them. Seita eventually takes Setsuko, and leaves their aunt’s house for a dug-out shelter by a pond, where he struggles hopelessly to find money and items to trade for food. It all spirals downward in a tragic, yet foreseeable, path to a heartbreaking end, which is slow-suffering death for both brother and sister.
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There are three scenes in the movie that I find particularly striking and believe do most in delivering the themes of this movie. One is when after the siblings use the fireflies to illuminate the cave, Setsuko is seen the next morning burying the dead insects, and as she tells that she knows her mother has died and is now also in a grave, she asks with her two large sparkling eyes shadowed and barred by the horrors of war, “Why do fireflies have to die so quickly?” Another comes after Seita carries his little sister to the hospital and is informed that his sister is starving and needs food, he is somber for a moment murmuring ‘food’, then in a sudden burst of desperation, cries out: “Where am I supposed to get food?”
These two questions stabbed my heart like spears the moment I heard them. These are questions that never really need to be answered but they nevertheless need to be remembered. In the last scene, the ghost of Setsuko lays sleeping comfortably in the lap of her older brother, while he gazes at the night sky over the skyline of a fully modernized city. As one critic elaborates on this last shot, and here I quote, “They live on, though the world has forgotten them, and will continue to live on forever, reliving their story. They have not forgotten the past; they cannot. And neither should we.”
Troubled, Moved, and Pity
In fact this is a feeling any human being would have after watching this movie. The story the movie tells is heart-rending enough, as could be well seen from the above description and elaboration. However, the movie’s strength is not in the story, but in the untold. From the time Seita’s ghost appears after his death in a train station at the beginning of the movie, the viewer is haunted by the remembrance of what is to come as he retells his story. There are times when the viewer is allowed to forget about the future, but only for a little while, as Seita and Setsuko’s reappearance brings them back to the sad reality of their impending deaths. A feeling is created that some ghosts (like Seita and Setsuko) are still living, breathing people, and are cursed to watch their agony over and over again. In a scene where Setsuko cries violently for her Aunt not to take her mother’s kimonos and sell them for food, the screen pans slowly and deliberately out of view of the main characters, where the orange glow of Seita’s ghost appears. He covers his ears and cringes at his sister’s tears, almost crying himself, but can do nothing to stop them.
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Even the few heart warming scenes in the movie are interrupted by the truth of what the brother and sister face. There is a scene about a half hour into the movie where Seita takes Setsuko to the beach for the first time. It is a beautiful display of sibling love, and flashbacks of warm memories from their family enter the story. They are all too brief, however, as Setsuko soon discovers a dead body from the war wrapped in straw. Seita tells her the man is asleep, and they do not go to the beach again. Another disquieting scene is of Seita’s ghost watching himself carry his sleepy sister on his back, about to enter his Aunt’s house for the first time. He watches, knowing full well what will come of it, but unable to stop it.
Indeed, as Roger Ebert, the famous critic for Chicago Sun-times, wrote in his review essay of the movie, one of Grave of the Fireflies’ greatest gifts is its patience; shots are held so we can think about them, characters are glimpsed in private moments, and atmosphere and nature are given time to establish themselves. The movie does not try to create a dramatic plot or atmosphere; rather it narrates the story out simply and directly, giving the animation an amazingly realistic touch and mood. There is time for silence in almost every scene and between scenes. And in these silences allowed for meditation we the audience are deeply troubled by the horrors of war, moved by the beauty and spirit the siblings display while confronting these horrors and at the same time we feel great pity for their tragic fate.
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Being a Chinese…
Being a Chinese, I found myself at times revolting to the movie in the course of viewing, mainly because, I think, it narrates through a Japanese military family’s point of view and takes a great pity upon the Japanese people. I thought to myself: “How about the cities you bombed and the villages you burned down? You deliberately invaded other countries and you massacred other peoples at will. During World War II, thousands upon thousands of Chinese people not only died from poverty and hunger, they died as victims to your soldiers’ barbaric slaughtering-for-fun-and/or-competition craze, and as experimenters in your notorious chemical weapon labs.
You raped our women and murdered our children, what right have you got to make such a movie and complain to the world about your miseries in a war largely initiated by your own government’s greed for power and resources?” Some of the characters’ remarks in the movie I find offending, like “Daddy will make them pay for this”, “…defend our country and motherland”, “We surrendered? The great Japanese Empire surrendered?” etc. Also the portrait of the impression of the boy’s father being loving, upright and brave somewhat angers me. In this movie, the father is the only soldier of the characters involved, and therefore to some extent he represents the Japanese military. This has some effect in creating the false impression that the Japanese military is upright and is only defending their homeland. Moreover, I cannot help thinking that if Seita was but a dozen years older, he would have been fighting somewhere in the Asias or the pacific, tormenting innocent people of other countries and serving the fascist greed of the Japanese government.
Still I admire many of the movie’s beautiful scenes. I believe that the scene of numerous fireflies dancing in the dark and around the brother and sister will remain one of animation’s most memorable scenes and it tickles every child’s heart with wonder. The way that the siblings capture fireflies and set them free inside their net is the most peculiar yet fascinating way of illuminating I have ever seen. The effect it produces is overwhelming: imagine sleeping inside such a net! —- Just as the movie shows, it is just like sleeping under the starry sky in the open air! In fact many of the movie’s scenes ring familiarly with my childhood memories. I remember vaguely when I was small I also went out after dark with my peers to capture fireflies; I also crushed the firefly the first time I tried to hold one in my hands.
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To me, many of the movie’s displays of natural landscapes and field views accord to South China’s beautiful countryside scenery. It resembles my hometown as I remembered. Nowadays things are unfortunately different. Industrialization and modernization have robbed today’s children the privilege and pleasure of swimming in little ponds and catching fireflies and grasshoppers on summer nights. In fact I have never ever seen a firefly when I go back every summer since I came to Beijing. For me personally, thereof, the movie in some respects counts more as a nostalgic one remembering good old days than a war movie with profound meanings.