Movie Analysis: Grave of the Fireflies

This animated film by Studio Ghibi, Grave of the Fireflies, was written and directed by Isao Takahata. The film received positive critics. Even Robert Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times added the movie to his “Great Movies” list. By 2005, a live action was aired, made by NTV Japan. And soon, Grave of the Fireflies will appear in theatres by 2015.

The story was based on a semi-autobiography by Akiyuki Nosaka. According to an interview by the Animerica Vol.2, No.11, 1994 (taken from English translation of the interview), it was a week after the end of the war, in Fukui prefecture, when his sister died. He did also carry her around on his back. In addition, he also said that there were things in the story that he wrote that there were things in the novel that he wrote that he could not do during those times. He said he was “trying to compensate” for the generous acts through Seita’s attitude towards his sister. Because just as he added, “I also had feelings too… I was hungry after all”.

Nosaka had been offered movie version for the novel. But he declined, saying that “it was impossible to create the barren, scorched earth that’;s to be the backdrop of the story.” But when he was offered an anime version, he concluded that it was the best way to depict the movie.

The movie imparted a story of a boy, Seita, who carried around his sister, Setsuku, to find shelter during the waning days of World War II in Kobe, Japan. Initially, they were tasked to keep the food and that their mother had gone ahead to the shelter because of a weak heart. However, when Seita arrived t the shelter, her mother was badly burned and she soon died afterwards. Seita and his sister moved to live with the family of a distant aunt. But when the food started getting scarce for them, their aunt also started to be hostile towards them. And it started – the struggle for survival of the two siblings in a war-wrecked country.

I believe that the most powerful strength of the movie was its tragic way of depicting the times of war. It imparted a truth of how war, in general, can make the lives of innocent people very difficult, harsh. It showed to what extent people will do to survive amidst war. As was also shown by the aunt of Seito, when the chance of survival is thin, compassion grows thinner as well. The story also made more sense and stirred feelings of sympathy and dread when I learned that it was based on life experience.

In addition to a heart-wrecking plot, the story was relayed with laudable directing. Even if there were flashbacks, I did not find it difficult to understand. The film had taken advantage of the lighting where animations had an upper hand. The lighting made it easier for me to determine which scenes are the flashbacks, which ones are not.

I get the point of the animation. But I would have preferred to watch the film with actual people acting out the scenes. I want to see the facial expressions of the people because animated characters can only show a limited range of emotion. And perhaps, with a more advanced technology today, I wanted to see more realistic effects – like the bombing and the burning of houses.  

All things considered, the movie conveyed its message simply but profoundly. And when I researched on what fireflies symbolize in Japanese culture. The title made a lot more sense to me. Fireflies – souls of warriors who died in war. But I want to think of it as the souls of all those who died including innocent lives. The Grave of the Fireflies, the grave of all the lives lost during the war.

It was a film of war. A film showing how war can be so repulsive. How war can cause too much damage. It was also a story of survival. A struggle on how far people can go to survive. In the case of Seito, he stole crops from farmers and looted houses when people are running away. In the case of his aunt, it showed how even the same blood can afford to look down and belittle when survival is at stake. And it is a tale from a different perspective. When I watched the film, the first thing that resounded in my mind was a line I have read somewhere that goes something like: a mountain looks different when viewed from a different perspective.

With the present chaotic concerns for Zamboanga and for the war in Syria, I hope this film can awaken some emotions to others. I hope this film will make them think, how many families will go and scamper away like rats chased by cats? How many sons will watch their mothers die? How many children will wait for fathers to return and denied of fathers in the end? Oppressor or oppressed, both will both feel the ugly circumstances of war.