Grave of the Fireflies: 25 Years On

Hotaru no haka, or Grave of the Fireflies to English ears, is the story of Seita, a 14-year-old boy with an unthinkable responsibility. It is 1945 and the United States are firebombing Japan in an attempt to end the Second World War, leaving many of the country’s gorgeous, ancient cities in ruins. Seita is quickly separated from his dying mother and is tasked with caring for his inquisitive younger sister, Setsuko. The following 89 minutes follows Seita and Setsuko’s struggle for survival, as the Japanese Empire falls apart around them. It is a harrowing, breathtakingly upsetting film, taking animation out of the colourful fantastic and into the darkness of reality.

Grave of the Fireflies is a beautiful picture, animated with love by a studio that has consistently pushed the barrier of art in cinema. As much a war film as an animation, it changed the rules for what could exist outside of live-action, its influence stretching as far West as Andy’s toy box. As Studio Ghibli prepare to celebrate its 25th year with a glistening Blu-Ray release, we look at the legacy of one of the famous studio’s most enduring tales.

Studio Ghibli was formed in 1985 by directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, and producer Toshio Suzuki, following the release of major domestic success Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. The subsequent American release was heavily edited for theatres, leading Ghibli, unhappy with the treatment of their already successful film, to implement a no-cuts policy. Ghibli derives from an Arabic word meaning ‘Mediterranean Wind,’ highlighting Ghibli’s desire to “blow a new wind through the Japanese film industry.” Grave of the Fireflies, Ghibli’s second picture as an official studio, showcases their desire to remove animation from its chains; it ushered in Ghibli as not simply animators, but as filmmakers. In 2002 Ghibli scored their first Academy Award with fantasy adventure Spirited Away, one of the most critically successful animations of all time, picking up the gong for Best Animated Feature.

Takahata, the director of Grave of the Fireflies, has helmed four of the studio’s efforts, with a fifth, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, due out later this year. Miyazaki is very much the face of Ghibli, taking his place as the John Lasseter of the company, but Takahata remains an integral part of the studio’s history. He joined Toei Doga animation studios in 1959, a studio juggling original television programming and theatrical releases, perhaps most famously known for producing anime series Dragon Ball Z. It was here that Takahata met Miyazaki, with the latter working as an animator on The Little Norse Prince (1968), Takahata’s directorial debut. The director-animator relationship between the two continued until the formation of Ghibli in 1985, with Takahata overseeing Miyazaki’s development into a director in his own right.

Stylistically and thematically Ghibli’s output is revolutionary in Japanese anime, however genre-wise the studio is relatively straightforward. From My Neighbour Totoro (1988) to Spirited Way (2002), these tales have their roots set firmly in fantasy, exploring the naïve from the perspective of the fantastic; in Princess Mononoke (1997), Ghibli even produced a bona-fide fantasy epic. Grave of the Fireflies however, is not a fantasy, it is real; the dangers are real, the history is real, the tragedy is devastatingly real. The great, late Roger Ebert said: “Yes, it’s a cartoon, and the kids have eyes like saucers, but it belongs on any list of the greatest war films ever made.” This is why it stands a world apart from any of its animated peers; Grave of the Fireflies isn’t just an animation, it is a war movie, as pertinent as The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), say, or Schindler’s List (1993). Moreover, it is an anti-war movie, as convincing a peace protest as one could possibly imagine. How does a war film justify the suffering of the innocent, particularly in such a horrible, unrelenting manner? By largely ignoring the politics, by not including an oafish or cartoonish antagonist (the lack of which being a common Ghibli genre convention), and we only see the tragedy of the humanity, making the eventual pay-off all the more shattering and, in its own way, frustrating.

Cinema has always been a product of its relative history. Over the last decade American cinema has produced countless movies that explore themes influenced directly, or indirectly, by the attacks on New York in 2001. (In 2009 I handed in an A-Level project on 9/11’s impact on Cloverfield (2008); even then the attack’s legacy had not full developed and more than likely still has yet to.) The largest scale single attack by humans on other humans in military history came 43 years before Grave of the Fireflies first played Japanese cinemas, in the city of Hiroshima. On the morning of August 6th, 1945 the United States Air Force dropped an atom bomb, instantly killing an estimated 80,000 innocent souls. Three days later came the second, this time on Nagasaki, forcing the surrender of the Japanese Empire and the end of the Second World War. In the West, we do not really consider the impact this must have had on the Japanese; to most this was a necessary act, saving more than it killed, many times over. What Grave of the Fireflies does, again using the innocents and their survival as the primary source of drama, is to remind the audience who the real victims of war are. Interestingly there is a scene in the film in which the surrender is declared, and Seita finds this upsetting, but not because he is fanatical for his country’s political agenda, but because his father, serving in the Imperial Japanese Navy, is most likely dead, leaving Setsuko in his primary care. History tends not to remember what war takes, from either side of the conflict.
Perhaps the most well-known Japanese cinema export is Godzilla, originally brought into the world in 1954, by Ishiro Honda, a World War II veteran. A simple tale of a giant lizard wreaking havoc throughout Japan, the original represents the fears Japan hold onto as a result of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Godzilla highlights the helplessness the country felt in the wake of an attack they could not stop and the anxiety that the same could happen again. The Japanese army were infamously fanatical for their cause, with many taking on the role of Kamikaze and others flat-out refusing to surrender to the Allies where the Germans would have done so without a thought. The idea of the Empire was to fight to the last man, which is exactly what they attempted to do, long after Hitler had shot himself in his bunker. The bomb changed everything for the Japanese, surrender became a reality, their previous invincibility was gone and the country had to consider the implications of its actions.

It is here that we come to Hadashi no Gen (1983), or Barefoot Gen, a Japanese manga series turned series of animated and live-action films, the first directed by Mori Masaki. Barefoot Gen is Grave of the Fireflies’ closest relation, telling the story of an orphan boy and his adventures in the aftermath of the attack on his hometown of Hiroshima. Like Grave of the Fireflies, it deals with the need for and lack of food and also discusses and depicts brutal tragedy from the point of view of a wide-eyed child. The difference lies in the message of hope that the earlier film preaches; it ends with its young protagonist discovering that crops are beginning to grow and, by extension, that there is a future for him. (A similar message was purveyed in Godzilla; the creature is defeated, cast aside by the powers of a new Japan.) Grave of the Fireflies, however, is altogether less optimistic, its tale ending before the rebuild can begin. The desperate resolution offers hope in other ways, providing comfort in the everlasting love between a family. This again comes back to this central idea that humanity is all that matters. Setsuko asks Seita why the fireflies illuminating their shelter have to die, which is also the question the film asks: Why does war have to take the lives of so many? The eventual realisation of hope for a nation matters little to those who are not there to enjoy it.

Grave of the Fireflies is one of the most emotionally powerful films ever made; in the ranks of tearjerkers it sits at the top, leaving the audience physically exhausted. It is not an easy film to sit and watch, with many appreciating its brilliance, yet refusing to go back. Outside of the aesthetic – a rich palette of colour, bringing out the beauty of rural Japan, even against the backdrop of endless destruction and horror – there is little to actively enjoy. Unlike a Toy Story 3 (2010) or a The Green Mile (1999), to use two of the most recently popular tearjerkers, Grave of the Fireflies is unrelenting in its misery. This makes us wonder where cinema stops being entertainment and becomes something different. The truth is that this film is something different; it sits alone, a genre unto itself. The power is in the misery, the despair is what makes Seita and Setsuko two of cinema’s most astonishingly realised characters. The despondency is why Setsuko’s naïveté breaks our hearts; her obsession with her fruit-drops box brings home the horror in subjecting small children to such terror. It’s not fun, but it doesn’t have to be. Cinema makes history real; without powerful representations of events long since gone, the history books are not enough to make us understand. Of course in the West we appreciate the Blitz, or 9/11, or the slaughter in the trenches; but for past disaster in alien cultures, a world away, we cannot appreciate what tragedy means without cinema, or literature, to bring us that human narrative. Cinema humanises tragedy, it takes abstract concepts and makes us scared, or hurt, or upset. Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000), for example, made me afraid of heroin, not because of the health consequences, but because of the impact it had on the characters’ lives. In this sense cinema has almost a responsibility to tell us things we find it hard to hear.

The closest thing we have to Grave of the Fireflies in the UK is When the Wind Blows (1986), a bleak animation directed by Jimmy T. Murakami and based on Raymond Briggs’ graphic novel. It tells the story of an elderly couple, naïvely negotiating the preparation for and aftermath of a nuclear attack on British soil. Another tearjerker, pulling at our heartstrings by drawing attention to the couple’s love and memories of simpler times, When the Wind Blows, like Grave of the Fireflies, brings it all down to a character level. The similarities between the two pictures make us realise the pointlessness of conflict and the fact that all people are generally the same. We have the same values; we might just practice them differently. War is fought between opposing ideologies, but at the route of the fight the civilians of both sides simply want peace and to see their loved ones safe.

Grave of the Fireflies’ legacy is in its liberal approach to the confines of animation. Without its adult realism and emotion punch, Pixar could not have considered the first ten minutes to Up! (2009) a workable device, nor could Waltz with Bashir (2008) have been taken seriously. But more than simply its impact on animation, Grave of the Fireflies did something important: it took war movies out of the ‘good guy, bad guy’ convention and made war itself the antagonist. It made Western audiences fear the American military, not for their ideology, but for the threat they pose to two characters painted so lovingly into our imaginations, that their creed, colour and nationality makes no difference. For that reason, Grave of the Fireflies stands up as one of the most important motion pictures ever committed to celluloid.

Grave of the Fireflies is released onto UK Blu-ray on July 1st by StudioCanal

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