The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 40 – Grave of the Fireflies

Grave of the Fireflies

In last week’s column we covered the Studio Ghibli movie My Neighbour Totoro. This week we are covering another Ghibli film that was released on the exact same day as last week’s film. But this is a film very different in tone, mood and subject matter.

Grave of the Fireflies is the most grown-up and adult of the Ghibli films, having the highest BBFC rating of any of them, at 12. Also, this film was adapted and directed by the other of Ghibli’s principle co-founders, Isao Takahata. He is a more experienced director than Hayao Miyazaki, with Takahata’s first directorial feature being in 1968 and Miyazaki in 1979.

Grave of the Fireflies is based on a semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by Akiyuki Nosaka and deals with that most controversial of subjects surrounding Japan: World War Two. However, it is not glorifying in war. It deals with the dying days of the war and is often seen by many as one of the great anti-war films. However, Takahata and others claim that the film is not anti-war.

The film begins with the central character, 14-year-old boy Seita, dying of starvation in a railway station on 21st September 1945, with nothing on him except his clothes and an empty sweet tin. The entire film is then told in flashback, looking through the eyes of the spirits of Seita and his younger sister Setsuko. Starting with the firebombing of Kobe in 16th-17th March 1945, with their father in the navy, Seita and Setsuko are left to look after their mother who has a heart condition. However, during the firebombing their mother is terribly burned and later dies of her injuries.

The children then move in with a distant aunt. Seita tries to keep Setsuko’s spirits up by amongst other things giving her a tin of sweets, but their aunt begins to resent them, claiming they do nothing to earn their keep. Eventually sick of their aunt’s contempt of them, and unable to contact their relatives in Tokyo, Seita and Setsuko decide to life on their own in an abandoned bomb shelter. The story then follows their attempts to try and live outside the system, while the viewer knows ultimately what happens.

Like all Studio Ghibli projects, Grave of the Fireflies is actually a children’s film, but it is a children’s film unlike any other before or since. Perhaps it is unsurprising that when it was released as a double feature with My Neighbour Totoro it was a commercial failure because the horrific nature and themes drove audiences away. Now it is widely considered as one of the greats and has since been remade as a live-action film twice, once in 2005 and again in 2008.

Grave of the Fireflies is quite possibly the most powerful Ghibli movie in terms of the effect it has on the viewer. As you watch Seita and Setsuko trying to cope with the situation they place themselves in, you wonder just how things can get so bad for the two children. Their aunt wants them to work for the war effort, but how can Seita do that when both the factory he was working in and the school he was studying in have both been destroyed?

As a result of the suffering that Seita and Setsuko go through, it is perhaps not surprising that most people consider Grave of the Fireflies to be an anti-war movie. However, Takahata himself has said that this is not the case. He has said that it, “is not an anti-war anime and contains absolutely no message.”

However, perhaps what is important is the reaction that you yourself get when you watch a film like this. Whether you feel horror about the nature of war, sadness about the neglect the children face, or something else entirely, what is important is the way a film likes this makes you feel.

Grave of the Fireflies is available in both DVD and Double-Play Blu-Ray / DVD collections from Studio Canal.