I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Studio Ghibli Isn't Always Cheerful: Grave of the Fireflies

by Susan Cohen
June 29, 2014

Grave of the Fireflies is the kind of movie where you learn the main characters are dead in the first few minutes. Literally. The first line of the film is: “September 21, 1945... that was the night I died.” And then the ghost of the character who said it goes to hang out with another ghost. This movie is not going to have a happy ending.

Based on a novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, Grave of the Fireflies is the story of 14-year-old Seita and his four-year-old sister, Setsuko, as they try to outlive World War II. Their home destroyed, their mother dead, and their soldier father’s whereabouts unknown, the siblings find themselves exploited and bullied by an opportunistic aunt before they decide to make a go of it on their own. The outcome isn’t so good.

Seita and Setsuko have been left alone in a society so warped that they’d rather fend for themselves in an abandoned shelter than seek legitimate help from adults, and all the horrific things that happen to them are presented bluntly, submitted nonchalantly as if writer and director Isao Takahata expects the audience to be as numbed to it as the children are. There are maggots growing from scorched victims and corpses littering the beach, and just when you settle into a tender moment of bonding between the two siblings, something else terrible happens. Even the eponymous fireflies, a rare source of delight for Seita and Setsuko, twinkle in much the same way as the bombs that are dropped on their city. Air raids are also a constant presence in the film, so much so that soon enough the viewer is as on edge for the sirens as the children are.

But all this physical destruction is just a red herring. Japan had as many deaths from disease and famine as it did from violence during the war, losing 500,000 civilians to hunger and sickness. That may be an easy factoid for Westerners to overlook, because the Japanese war narrative is scarcely seen in pop culture, both from an American perspective and from the Japanese. The country has produced maybe a couple dozen films about WWII, and few of those deal with the civilian experience. Grave of the Fireflies is a rare example of this point of view, and its ruined scenery and quiet dialogue convey so much while actually saying very little.

Grave of the Fireflies was birthed from Studio Ghibli, the same animation house that gave us Howl’s Moving Castle and My Neighbor Totoro. In fact, when it was originally released, Grave of the Fireflies was screened as part of a double feature with the latter. In a 1994 interview inAnimerica Magazine, Nosaka said that he was reluctant to see his story recreated for the screen, especially in live action. Grave of the Fireflies is partially based on his own experience during the war — including the death of the very young sibling he was taking care of despite his own young age —and he worried that a plump modern boy would play the part of his starving fictional counterpart. He wasn’t even entirely convinced when Takahata suggested animation, convinced that “animated features were pleasure viewing for summer vacation.” We’re all lucky he was so wrong.

Still, in the last decade, two live-action versions of Grave of the Fireflies were made. You can watch the trailer for one here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NXqN74dmGpM. As you can see, it bears a lot of similarities to the anime, but even in the few minutes presented there, there’s something missing. The schmaltzy trailer music doesn’t help.



Susan Cohen decided to leave her career in journalism to go back to school — for journalism. She's still not sure if she made a mistake. Visit susanjcohen.com to learn more about her.