Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Dir. Isao Takahata. Starring Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi, Akemo Yamaguchi

When I heard that Ender’s Game was going to be adapted to film, I was hurt. This was not a, “Man, they’re not going to make it how I imagined it!” or a “Jeez, they’re going to really mess up Bean” or anything like that. I was bothered because they were going to make a live-action film. There was never any way that they were going to find a twelve-year-old to play Ender the Xenocide any more than they would find a six-year-old to play Ender the Launchy.

There are, obviously, great live-action films which feature children in leading roles. The 400 Blows is an obvious example; Pan’s LabyrinthAu revoir les enfants, Pather Panchali. The difference between Ender’s Game and those films, though, is obvious: the star of The 400 Blows is Truffaut, and the star of Pather Panchali Satyajit Ray. Gavin Hood is not Louis Malle, and even Pan’s Labyrinth, the most comparable to Ender’s Game of the aforementioned bunch, is after something totally different. If you want to make a point about childhood and growing up, or if you want to showcase totalitarianism crushing innocence, or if you want to create a regional portrait, then cool: go ahead and auteur it up with a real-live child in front of the camera. If you’re making a high-concept CGI flick which is supposed to attract people who liked The Hunger Games, you should get creative.

And that’s what got me about Ender’s Game. Here is a movie where the source material (despite the fact that Card isn’t as good a novelist as I thought he was around age 13) is thoughtful and potentially dense with meaning. What gets in the way is what you see. And what you see in this movie is Asa Butterfield, Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin: not one of them is over 18, and not one of them says to me, “This is a child.” Heck, nothing about Jennifer Lawrence or Daniel Radcliffe (by the last movies) said “child” to me either. Isn’t the tragedy of Harry Potter that three seventeen-year-olds have to destroy Hitler almost singlehandedly? And that ninth-graders murder each other for sport in The Hunger Games? And that seventh-graders are destroying an entire sentient species in Ender’s Game? Where are the adults? Why are the children responsible for their own safety and for the safety of others? But I look at Jennifer Lawrence, and there’s nothing young in her bearing; Liam Hemsworth looks like he benches seventeen-year-olds, not like he is one.

This is a very roundabout way of saying that animation can be for more than just “kids’ movies,” that because something is animated doesn’t mean it can’t be deadly serious or deeply moving. I think that when it comes to showing children on screen, animation can actually be a far more powerful and far more realistic medium. Is a B-29 scarier in military footage or in anime? Is Setsuko’s desolation in Grave of the Fireflies any less painful to watch because it’s not an actual little girl? There’s a brilliant shot on the beach which shows a rash on Setsuko’s back. I gasped. That wasn’t a little girl with a makeup prosthetic on her back; that was a little girl whose health is obviously suffering. It’s the same principle as the French New Wave or the American films of the ’70s, where you don’t want big names, and for good reason: we eat our popcorn thinking about how much Emma Watson has grown up instead of how Hermione Granger is the reason anyone got anything done in the Potterverse. You want to look at someone you’ve never seen in a Lancome ad or in line for a Supporting Actor nomination, because if you’ve witnessed them outside of the film, then this film, this story you’re watching, is going to be polluted. (Purposeful intertextuality is not a bad thing on its own, and sometimes it’s actually incredibly useful when you have an actor building on a former role for comedic purposes, or playing against type for effect – this is why The Last Picture Show works on a casting level.) Had you seen Simba anywhere else before you watched The Lion King? Nobody in the theater was thinking about what TV show Mufasa had just guest-starred on.


Ten minutes into Grave of the Fireflies, I knew that this was not a movie I was going to be able to watch a second time. [EDIT: I’ve watched this a second time. It hurt a lot less than I expected, but I was surprised at how painful the final fifteen minutes or so are even when I already had each shot burned into my mind.] The limp body of Seita, who looks more like sixteen in two drawn dimensions than Jennifer Lawrence looks in all three of hers, lies still and alone, all but lifeless in the dark. A man comes by, commenting that he can see it in the boy’s eyes as he has seen it in the eyes of others: he’s done for. The film begins with Seita’s passive suicide; the rest of the film is a flashback to when the boy’s will to live was incredibly strong.

Seita and his little sister Setsuko are living in Kobe in late 1944, early 1945 when the city is firebombed. Their mother, who was already battling a heart ailment, is trapped inside their house as it burns; within the first fifteen minutes of the movie, she has died a gruesome death and Seita has to move himself and Setsuko to another town in the hopes that an aunt will take them in. Unfortunately, while the aunt does keep them, she does so gracelessly: she gripes continually about having two useless mouths to feed, constantly nags Seita about his failure to contribute to the war effort, turns every joyful moment that the siblings have into guilt. Seita is held in strict contrast with the other two boarders, both of whom are actively trying to serve their country in the face of what they know is an impending defeat. His aunt’s scolding takes a toll. Seita decides that he and his sister will eat their own rice which they’ll cook on their own stove; after a little while, even this arrangement falls through, and Seita decides to take Setsuko and leave for good. His aunt, surprised (relieved?) by their sudden move to depart, puts up little resistance.

The film races through the firebombing of Kobe and the death of the children’s mother. The film only lingers in one spot in the first fifteen minutes or so: Seita, having seen his mother’s entirely bandaged body and realizing that she’s not going to make it, tells Setsuko that he’ll take her to see their mother later. Setsuko – when I was watching it, I wondered if Setsuko knew her mother was dead, but later dialogue implies strongly that she doesn’t know yet – can only sniffle quietly, looking down at the pale brown sand. The camera waits for her for seconds to finish, a shot which has that Steve McQueen quality to it where someone holds your face and forces you to look on. It’s a masterful moment. It hurts everywhere to watch it. Watching a child cry is commonplace; I’m not a parent, but I still saw a bunch of preschoolers crying today just while running some errands. Watching this little animated girl cry makes the moment new, refreshes what it is to watch a four-year-old hurt, and the time it takes to watch her allows you to think heretical thoughts: why are we Americans bombing civilian populations anyway?

It’s moments like these that have earned Grave of the Fireflies a name for itself as a stunning anti-war film. However, Seita makes choices which seem utterly unbelievable for a wartime teenager in any nation in any time; he continually pushes himself and Setsuko into danger. At this point in the war, Japan is rationing food at all levels; trading for it or buying it outright has become almost impossible. Yet Seita leaves his aunt and her rations for the uncertainty of trades and, occasionally, theft. His choice to use his own rice rather than live off his aunt’s looks like a worse decision every day that he and Setsuko are on their own. Couldn’t he have volunteered his services for a home-front activity? (I’m being generous and leaving options which don’t involve leaving Setsuko totally alone.) Couldn’t he have invoked his father’s name (his father is an officer in the navy) to make inroads into munitions or rationing offices or farming or grunt work? When he leaves his dirty dishes in the sink and his aunt complains – even though he’s eating separately, she still has to clean up after him? – we feel some level of sympathy for her. Seita doesn’t seem to realize that he and his sister are in a fragile position: watching his mother die hardly seems to faze him into prudent action. There’s a reason that Grave of the Fireflies is read, less frequently but maybe more coherently, as the story of a young man’s bad choices brought on by disrespect for his elders. It’s a compelling argument, and as the film goes on it grows only more tragic.

Seita and Setsuko happen across a cave to live in. Before long, Setsuko’s condition, already delicate, becomes worse. She starts to suffer from diarrhea. Her whole back becomes scratchy and irritated. She collapses outside the cave. Seita takes her to a doctor, who tells him that she is malnourished, and all that is wanting is for him to provide more and better food for her. (This is where the film smacks the viewer in the face with a wrench. They’re roughing it, but Seita can still take his sister into town for the doctor? It’s like a perverse version of Walden. This happens again when Seita learns about VJ Day in line at the bank: he can still go to the bank?) Seita does so – he feeds her a little chunk of watermelon and tries to cook chicken and eggs and rice gruel for her – but it’s too late. His sister dies, quiet, mumbling, hallucinating. We knew she would die before she even appeared on-screen – Seita’s lonely death, presumably by malnutrition as well, would never have happened without her by his side – but that hardly softens the blow. Setsuko’s slow death is all manner of emotional terrorism. (One wonders, though, how the audiences at Toy Story 3 would have reacted to Setsuko, lying on her back in the dark, as she stops breathing.) Even by wartime standards, Setsuko’s death is strikingly needless. When Seita dies in some subway station weeks later, we are hardly surprised. Here are two casualties of the war, as much as any kamikaze pilot or sailor or infantryman, even though both of them die after September 2, 1945.

There’s a powerful realism that pervades the film. For example, Setsuko is matter-of-fact about her bodily functions. She travels piggyback more often than not, and at one juncture shortly after the first bombing, she asks Seita to put her down so she can pee. This is the kind of thing everyone talked about during 24 – when does Jack Bauer pee, anyway? – but it’s fitting. Even after you’ve lost your home and your mother has been savagely burned and you have no idea what to do next, you still have to pee. The ravages of malnutrition are spoken to as well: somehow, without drawing them thinner, the artists manage to de-bulk the pair. They weigh less on-screen; they are less massive, taking up less room, displacing nothing. They seem inconsequential, which of course they are: what are two more dead orphans in wartime?

The worst moment of realism in the whole movie comes after Setsuko has died, and you think you’re safe from her and from your own empathy. But there we are again, in front of that cave she died in, and she’s running inside, wearing Seita’s boots, saluting the camera with a bowl on her head. These images, especially the last one, are some of the film’s most famous and enduring. But it’s the way she runs inside that is so striking – she starts to run, and then all of a sudden, she fades out and disappears before she would disappear from our line of sight. It’s the most accurate depiction of death I’ve ever seen in a film. Even after death, you can still see them walking in the places they’ve walked before, as plainly as if they were there, and then when you turn your head to confirm the sighting, they’ve disappeared. Their laughter echoes, the floor creaks under their feet, and their bodies vanish when you look at them in the light. This is why we believe in ghosts.

I think my favorite piece of trivia about Grave of the Fireflies is that it was released as a double feature with My Neighbor Totoro, which is the emotional equivalent of watching your wife dying as she gives birth to a healthy child. It’s also the reason why this is, in my view, one of the “overshadowed movies.” Grave of the Fireflies has never had the popularity of My Neighbor Totoro or Spirited Away, although it is certainly the equal of both. Yet you can’t show your six-year-old Grave of the Fireflies. (You could, of course. Maybe they’re the target audience.)

It’s fitting to end this with a discussion about the fireflies themselves. They’re present almost from the beginning. There’s a famous scene in the opening where the spirits of Seita and Setsuko, all in red, are surrounded by fireflies hanging about. There’s a beautiful scene where Seita and Setsuko bring as many fireflies as they can into their cave to light it up; there’s the haunting scene that takes place the following morning, as Setsuko relates the grave her mother was thrown into to the mass grave she creates for the fireflies. Yet the one which I think is most instructive takes place early on, while the siblings are still at their aunt’s. Seita is trying to teach Setsuko how to catch a firefly and hold it in her hands. Setsuko, being as maladroit as any other four-year-old, squishes her first one. Seita laughs and gets her to try again. What’s one more firefly on the palm of a little girl, whose hand is stained with the blood of a cold chemiluminescent? Is it any more than one more little girl lying dead in a cold, dark cave? The question of responsibility – whose hands bear the marks of her blood – is just harder to answer.

2 thoughts on “Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

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